One of the most popular Christmas hymns is "What Child is This?" The melody is taken from a sixteenth century English ballad entitled "Greensleeves". However, the lyrics we know today were written in 1865 by William Chatterton Dix. As a young man in his late twenties, he was struck down by an illness which nearly killed him. The recovery period left him bedridden for several months during which he fell into a deep depression. To pull himself out of it, he began writing poetry turning his attention to more positive and constructive thoughts. The words to the popular song, "What Child is This?",are the fruit of his efforts. It quickly became a standard piece featured in Christmas liturgies and a favorite among Christmas carolers.
The song asks a question which is at the center of today's celebration. What child is this laid to rest in the manger at Bethlehem? Who is it that is born for us this day? Why do we continue to celebrate his birth so many centuries later?
This child is Christ the Lord. He is the Savior, sent to rescue us from a life of sin. He is God come down to earth for us to worship and adore. He was present when the world was created. He is the image and likeness of God. When we look upon him, we see the all-powerful God. When we hear him, it is the very Word of God which reaches our ears.
Before his birth, God sent his prophets to teach us his ways. They proclaimed to Israel the truth of God's love for them and the promise that one would come who would be their King forever. With the birth of Jesus, however, it is not another prophet who is sent but God himself who comes not only to teach us but to share our lives with us. Today's second reading puts it this way: "In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he has spoken to us through the Son." This child is the Son of God come down to bring the light of God's truth to the whole world.
At the same time, this child is one of us. He is made of flesh and bones. He needed to eat and breathe just as we do. He needed to be protected as a baby by his parents. We know all too well that he also was capable of suffering and dying. Yet he lived a life of perfect obedience to his heavenly Father, and because of it, he could be the source of new life to us who have believed in him.
And so, Jesus teaches us not only about God, he also teaches us about ourselves. No man in history lived as fully a human life as Jesus did because he was free from sin from the moment of his birth. All other women and men have had the beauty of their humanity scarred by selfishness, pride and greed. As great as many of them were, they could never show us the full potential of our human nature. But Jesus, being free of sin, reveals to us what God meant us to be and how he meant us to live. Not only that, by sending his Spirit upon us, he has given us the power to live a fully human life, free from the bondage of sin. This is Saint John's message to us in the gospel: "...to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name."
Today's feast is not just a commemoration of Jesus' birthday. Rather, it is about our new birth through faith. In the waters of baptism, we were born again. We stepped out of the darkness of ignorance and sin into the light of God's word. We rejoice that on this day that light entered the world and that it has shone in our hearts. Because Jesus was born, we do not have to stumble around in the darkness unable to reach God and unable to live a good life. Rather we have God's word revealed to us, we have his Spirit in our hearts guiding us on the way of salvation and we have a Savior who made it all possible by becoming one of us.