What Child Is This

Everybody knows the Christmas story, or at least the part about how the baby arrives. Less familiar to many people, I think, is who this baby turns out to be and how he really matters.

In one of those prophecies from Isaiah that sound a lot like Jesus to Christian ears, the prophet says: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” The words that leap out to me, but often seem to get lost around the holidays, are “Mighty God” and, what follows from that, “authority.”

Our culture is not big on authority these days. “Likes” on Facebook and “trending” on Twitter reflect a perennial pursuit of popularity, which feels like an altogether different thing from authority. Can you imagine Jesus checking to see how many FB friends he has, and how he’s trending?

I hope not. He’s not like that. In fact, the people who wrote about him said that what really impressed the crowds was how he spoke “as one who had authority,” not like the ordinary opinion leaders and rule makers who were always trying to muster their own following.

John’s gospel says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Paul says, “All things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Which is to say that this baby turns out to be God in the flesh, and that’s why he has authority—at least according to the gospel.

I understand how people find that hard to believe. It’s a very big claim, though many of those who knew him best, and saw what he did, and met him again after Easter couldn’t come up with any other way to describe him. I understand having a hard time reaching that conclusion; and I understand trying to live for him once you do, since I’ve been working on that for many decades now.

What I find hard to understand is indifference. It seems to me that the coming of this child who will be called Christ is either everything or it is nothing. If it’s nothing, then there’s really no reason for the church to exist. But if it’s everything, then the church is a community entrusted with the most important message in the world, the kind of message that, if we understand it at all, will turn our whole lives around. Because if anyone really does have authority, surely it is the one whose coming we celebrate at Christmas.

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