By: Fr. Ryan Connors, Dean of Men
The popular nineteenth century hymn What Child is this set to the tune of the English folk song Greensleeves poses the essential Christmas question: What child is this born on Christmas day? Who is he and what does he mean for our lives?
On the one hand, if the child born on Christmas day were simply a good man from long ago, a wise sage or spiritual guru, then it really isn’t worth doing much about. If the Christ child were a good man from times past, then maybe it’s worth a yearly celebration—like how we observe Washington’s birthday. Maybe he deserves a head nod or kind of lip service from time to time. But, in such a case, he really isn’t worth changing your life.
On the other hand, if the child born in Bethlehem is in fact the God of Heaven taken on a human face, if He is indeed the Word made flesh, this is the most unimaginable news. Our whole lives need to be organized around Him. Everything changes when Christ is born. If He really is God Himself, nothing matters more than making sure our lives revolve around Him.
These two options—a good man from long ago who doesn’t really change our lives, or the God of Heaven born in time who makes it possible for us to change—receive a clear resolution today. Today’s feast answers the question What child is this.
On January 1st, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. In addition to honoring Our Lady at the beginning of this new year, on today’s feast Catholics cherish the identity of the child born to Mary. What child is this who on Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Today’s celebration commemorates the definition of the fifth century Council of Ephesus declaring Mary, Mother of God. After debate among emperors and bishops, at Ephesus the Church proclaimed the truth about Jesus and Mary: Our Lady is in fact the God-bearer, theotokos.
The Blessed Virgin Mary is indeed the Mother of God. The child born to Mary on Christmas day is really the God of Heaven. As the song says, He is “Christ the King whom shepherds guard and angels sing.”
Our response to this unimaginable news is simple: Again, the hymn: “Haste, then and bring him laud.” That is, we bring Him praise. We worship Him. We give our lives to Him. “He is the babe, the son of Mary.” Mary teaches us What child is this. The virginal conception and virginal birth point to the fact that this really is God’s intervention in history. He is God Himself come among us.
Here at Saint John’s, we have the privilege to form priests convinced of the true identity of the Christ child. The future priests of New England and beyond recognize that the son of Mary is truly Son of God. They want to share Him with you by their future preaching and sacramental ministry. They want to do so with gentleness and mercy and with the courage to share the splendor of truth.
We do well to draw near to Mary this New Year. She teaches us What child is this and shows us how to love Him best. From all of us at Saint John’s Seminary, may God bless you and Mary keep you in 2023.