This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

What child is this?

What child is this, who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping, whom angels greet with anthems sweet, while shepherds watch are keeping? — Hymnal: A Worship Book, No. 215; text by William C. Dix, 1865

The Mennonite Children’s Choir of Lancaster, Pa., performs a Christmas concert Dec. 1 at First Presbyterian Church. — Dale D. Gehman for MWR
The Mennonite Children’s Choir of Lancaster, Pa., performs a Christmas concert Dec. 1 at First Presbyterian Church. — Dale D. Gehman for MWR

She was nearly blind, overweight and shuffling into our front hallway. Our neighbor was poor but anticipated her children being together for supper.

“Could I borrow some spoons?” was her request.

I doubted she had enough silverware to feed more than a few people, but the anticipation of a crowd gathering for potato soup was a joyful occasion.

“Come on in,” I invited. “I’ll get a bunch of spoons. Can’t say they will all match!”

She used her hands to balance her gait along the hallway and then suddenly stopped. “A baby? I smell a baby, all lotion and new. Is there a baby in here?”

In the center of the dining room, and directly in front of her now, was a bassinet with our newly born daughter. “It’s our baby daughter sleeping in this crib,” I explained.

“Oh, I just love babies. Where is she?”

And with that, I picked up our sleeping child and put her into our neighbor’s outstretched arms as her nearly blinded eyesight tried to find the infant cuddled in her generous bosom.

“Ain’t Jesus wonderful!” she exclaimed. “Ain’t it just wonderful to have Jesus right here in my arms! You all have to come to our house with this new baby. My son’s just out of prison, and we are celebrating. You just have to bring this Jesus baby.”

I was so overwhelmed with her request I nearly dropped the handful of spoons. Stunned by the unexpected invitation, I thought of her other son, my 16-year-old English student, who was now expelled for fighting and mostly living on the streets. What violence lay inside their home? We surely shouldn’t eat their meager food ration. I mumbled a “maybe” and stood near her.

Without a reply from me, she held the baby out for me and turned to leave. “Gotta go. Time to make that soup.” She moved to the front door, and I handed her a bunch of spoons while cradling my baby. I watched as she moved down the front steps, out the gate and turned to her house.

All I could do was hold our baby and wonder, “What child is this?”

Who is the stranger here in our midst, looking for shelter among us? Who is the outcast? Who do we see amid the poor, the children of God? — Sing the Story, No. 26; text by Scott Soper, 1994

Many mothers and fathers have gazed into their infants’ faces and marveled at the miracle of birth. Grandparents, friends, church members are reduced to cooing onlookers as a new baby is held for viewing. Even total strangers approach a sleeping baby in the grocery store with an eager, “Can I hold your baby?”

We look in our rearview mirrors a hundred times to see if a sleeping infant in the car seat is really there. The presence of an infant evokes joy, adjustment, disruption. A baby changes everything.

So, too, the biblical story of the startling announcement of an impending birth to an unsuspecting teenager named Mary creates transformation (Luke 1).

The ancient text reminds us that a child, a newborn, disrupts the betrothed couple as well as the ruling king (Matthew 2).

Modern Christians often conflate the Gospel accounts of the birth, shepherds, angels, magi and escape to Egypt into a narrative that gives pageant producers lots of material. Yet we should also note how contemporary this Jesus story really is.

Today’s birth narratives bring a global cry from babies born in wealth or poverty, peace or war, homeless or landed, healthy or ill, dark- or light-skinned, loved or rejected, yours or mine.

Long ago, the Good News was announced by human beings like Elizabeth and Mary and by the prophetic words of Zechariah and John. Today, the Good News is ours to tell and retell.

Or, better yet, sing.

This, this is Christ the king, whom shepherds guard and angels sing. Haste, haste to bring him laud, the babe, the son of Mary! — Hymnal: A Worship Book, No. 215

This is Christ, revealed to the world in the eyes of a child, a child of the poor. — Sing the Story, No. 26

In a wonderful footnote suggestion in Sing the Story, No. 26, we are encouraged to sing these two hymns — one very old, one very new — simultaneously.

My Christmas worship was breathtaking last year when a children’s choir sang Sing the Story, No. 26, while the adult choir sang Hymnal: A Worship Book, No. 215.

The intergenerational harmonies brought the message of hope amid differences to a new height. Music blended when spoken words could not. Thanks be to God.

Dorothy Nickel Friesen, a retired Mennonite Church USA pastor and conference minister, lives in Newton, Kan. Her memoir, The Pastor Wears a Skirt: Stories of Gender and Ministry, was published this year by Wipf and Stock.

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