Long before 1642, when this carol appeared in a Lutheran hymnal, people both Christian and otherwise asked the question, “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?”
Who is this child who, merely by being born, and in such mean estate, so dominates not just the shopping season but the very reckoning of the calendar and the head of each week: Dominica is what several languages call Sunday, the day of the Dominus, the Lord? We his disciples especially might want to give some convincing answer. After all, we say sincerely we would die for him, so we ought to be able to explain why he is so important.
The carol continues, “This, this is Christ the king, whom shepherds guard and angels sing.”
This king ended his life wearing a crown, but one of thorns. Over his head, in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, his civic enemies called him King of the Jews, but more to put a thumb in the eye of the captive Jews who resented the Romans’ military jackboot. Rome had ruled Palestine since 63 B.C. when General Pompeii conquered it. The Romans were paranoid that a rival leader might rise up and galvanize the Jews’ seething hatred into a movement. Their many intelligence agents reported back to people like Pilate and Herod whatever subversion and intrigue they picked up. One of many such rebel groups was the Sicarii, the dagger-carriers, known to favor violent overthrow of Rome’s control. Jesus’s apostle Simon the Zealot belonged to this cadre.
Some of the Jewish religious authorities hoped to use against Jesus his repeated claims that all this world belongs to God as his kingdom. The evangelists quote Jesus as speaking about this kingdom more than about any other subject. He was always intent on people hearing him say that God, not Satan or Caesar, rules this world. He knew this encouraging uplift put him at great risk. Even his fisherman friends and fellow Galileans counseled him about pushing this understandably dangerous agenda.
This king was thoroughly familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, which spoke longingly and often of a Messiah, a future anointed one empowered by God to speak and act in his name to bring salvation and liberation. Anointing to that culture was an investiture done by pouring oil on the head of an Israelite or Judean king, signifying that God chose to act through him for the good of his people. The word “Christ” renders the Latin “Christus” and the Greek “Christos,” the one who was “chrism-ed,” anointed with chrism.
When John baptized Jesus, God spoke, calling Jesus his beloved son, to whom we were to listen. So he was anointed not just as a secular king or political figure but as God’s own son, meaning a much more intimate relationship with God. Sent on mission, Jesus felt compelled to risk Caesar’s fear, using miracles to authenticate his oneness with God, who wants all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. People could observe and then choose whether they subscribed.
From whom or what are we to be saved? Not just from Caesar and his layered-in social injustices and systematized cruelties, but from our own deliberate misuse of our free will. It’s called sin, and it’s still around. God could have made us automatons, doing good and avoiding evil because of some divine programming. But then, that would not be free. Better that we choose intelligently. As Jesus — and we — read Genesis, no sooner is the world created as good then evil attempts its sabotage. The Eden account was written while Israel was captive in Babylon, from 587 to 538. The Babylonian god was a serpent, probably because it shed its skin and seemed to acquire new life. What better villain to represent evil in a parable meant to explain where evil comes from, since parables were common teaching techniques used with adults, as for instance, Aesop’s fables?
“The King of kings salvation brings; let loving hearts enthrone him.”
It would go a long way if we disciples appreciated the cross this king voluntarily took up for us in order to show how far God’s love would go for sinners. God stood back while we supremely disgraced our free will to crucify his son. Then he raised him from the dead.