December 22, 2011

What Child is This?

This post has an unusual inspiration: good grammar.

For her 300th episode, Grammar Girl covered "Christmas Carol Grammar". In particular, she analyzed the beginning of "What Child is This?". When properly parsed and punctuated, the question that opens the song reads: What child is this, who, laid to rest, on Mary's lap is sleeping?

Now, I'm a bit of a word-geek. Learning about squinting modifiers and adjectival passives just makes my Christmas a little merrier, so I'd argue that getting that question right is good. However, getting the answer to that question right is everything! Jennifer Fulwiler put it very well in her article on "What Child is This?", that this is "not only the most important question I could be asking right now, but the most important question I could ask ever."

Who is this little baby? Why does he inspire such devotion in so many, and such anger in others? The very next words provide the answer: This, this is Christ the King!

The next question posed is answered somewhat less satisfyingly. Why lies He in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding? In other words, why did God choose that time and place? Why not arrive fully grown and clothed, like Athena springing from Zeus' head? Why not be born to a great human king or queen? Why not appear now, when His YouTube videos could go viral?

We are tantalized with ideas by the rest of the lyrics:
  • He came "for sinners here".
  • "The silent Word is pleading" even from that lowly manger in Bethlehem, even before He could speak. Wrapped in swaddling clothes and helpless, He pleads for our salvation; years later, He would plead for it unclothed and hanging from a cross: "Father, forgive them..." (Luke 23:34)
  • He came so that nails and spear could pierce him through. He came for the cross to be borne for me and you.
  • He came to show us God, to make the Word flesh.
  • He came to bring salvation.
These answers tell us why He came but not why He came to a young girl in Bethlehem two millennia ago. At the National Catholic Register, Dan Burke briefly reviewed ten reasons for the incarnation, in these two categories, in "An Augustine Christmas: 10 Comments on the Incarnation of Christ". Several of these bear on the "why there?" question.

It was an act of humility to be born a helpless baby, another to be born and grow up in less than regal conditions. It was an invitation for no one to be afraid to come to him. "Come, peasant, king, to own Him!" God is within reach, literally.

It was a divine rescue - a drop behind enemy lines, as C. S. Lewis suggested, to sabotage the enemy in this world.

It was also a work of divine poetry, artistic creativity from the Creator. The baby that would be the Bread of Life for the world was born in Bethlehem - translated "house of bread" - and placed in a food trough.

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