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?
Although William Chatterton Dix’s famous Christmas carol seems to provide a clear answer, the question “what child is this?” has caused Christians, almost from the beginning, at least one major problem. Not the divine King part. Most everyone acknowledged that. No, the problem centers around the human Babe part. Why, after all, with all of his power and knowledge and glory did Jehovah, the great God of Israel, the Lord of Hosts, the Creator of All Things, condescend to be born as a baby, grow up as a child, and finally mature as an adult? Doesn’t Jesus’ humanity undermine, even deny, his divinity?
The Docetists, an early gnostic-like group, said yes. They held that Jesus’ appearance as a human was merely a kind of optical illusion or “semblance.” Jesus was not a man at all. He only appeared that way to those without higher insight. Another group claimed that Christ’s mortal body was just a shell and that the divine presence (or Logos) inhabited it only occasionally for miracles and prophetic utterings. Still others felt that although Christ may have looked human and acted human this was merely a disguise. God the Omnipotent, even as a baby, was only playing a part for our benefit. To these people and others it was utterly inconceivable that God would tire, get hungry, or sorrow over someone’s death. Jesus the divine had to be something else besides human.
The problem is an ancient one, posed long ago, and yet it remains with us today, reflected in various theologies, attitudes, paintings, and even movies that concern Jesus. I understand the problem, and I in no way wish to undermine Christ’s divinity, but for me the idea that Jesus would allow himself to experience fully what it is like to be human is a great gift and endears him to me as my God and my Savior. As I see it, Jesus’ humanity, far from undermining his godhood, is consistent with and even makes a case for his divinity.
So, what did Jesus give us while he was on earth? For one, he gave us his words. I have not surveyed the Scriptures rigorously, but it seems fairly clear to me that there are more words attributed directly to Jesus in the four gospels than in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants combined. And what words these are! Not abstract formulations or hyper-intellectual spoutings, but real-life lessons and parables grounded in actual human experience.
Having seen and understood firsthand what life is as we know it, Jesus laced his sermons with common, everyday images: coins that get lost, sheep that wander off, wind that blows where it will, leaven that goes bad, salt that loses its savor, fig trees that fail to bear, and so forth.
These images give his sermons power and memorability. I cannot work in the garden, for instance, without thinking of the parable of the soils. Whenever I see a car stopped on the side of the highway, hood up and with concerned people standing around it, I remember the parable of the Good Samaritan. Even carrying a flashlight as I saunter along a woodland path brings to mind Jesus’ injunction to let my light so shine. These words and images tell me much about what kind of god Jesus is and what he expects of me.
In addition to his words, Jesus’ mortality gave us his example. In this sense, the Word made flesh clothed his already powerful words in muscle and sinew and bone and in so doing reinforced their relevance. What would “blessed are the merciful” have meant to us if Jesus had not frankly forgiven the woman caught in adultery? How would we have understood “blessed are the peacemakers” without Jesus’ healing of the soldier’s ear? I cannot read “Blessed are the meek” without thinking of Jesus before Pilate or contemplate “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake” without thinking of Jesus as the Roman soldiers mocked him.
Jesus purposely established his teaching during his life, doing things just for our benefit that he did not need to do for himself. In the Book of Mormon, we read:
And now, I would ask of you, my beloved brethren, wherein the Lamb of God did fulfil all righteousness in being baptized by water?
Know ye not that he was holy? But notwithstanding he being holy, he showeth unto the children of men that, according to the flesh he humbleth himself before the Father, and witnesseth unto the Father that he would be obedient unto him in keeping his commandments. (2 Nephi 31:4‑7)
In short, Jesus made it possible for us to obey his commandment to follow him by actually, physically, tangibly “marking the path and showing the way.” As Jesus said after washing his disciples’ feet: “For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15). And in so doing Jesus reveals much about himself and his divine way.
This brings me to Jesus’ third gift, what is to me his mortality’s greatest gift: his experience. Experiencing pain gives one power, the ability to see another’s pain and the capability to do something about it. By condescending to being born as a baby, grow up as a child, and finally mature as an adult, Jesus made sure that he knew what we, his spiritual children, go through while in this mortality and in so doing equipped himself to heal and to help us. As we read in chapter 7 of Alma:
And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities. (Alma 7:11‑12, emphasis added)
But precisely what pains and afflictions and temptations did Jesus experience? The scriptural record is vague on this point. Not much is said about Christ’s youth, but still there is enough for me to think that Jesus had a very ordinary life before his ministry and that he understands firsthand what we go through during this stage of our mortality. We are told, for instance, that Jesus had brothers and sisters and therefore undoubtedly he understands the troubles as well as the joys of having siblings. We are also told that Mary and Joseph took Jesus, while a little child, down to Egypt, and therefore Jesus knows something about what it is like to move to a new place, even a foreign country, and the problems and joys of that experience.
Again, this is not much to go on, but the very fact that his own town’s people were surprised by what Jesus said and did during his ministry confirms to me that his early life was rather nondescript. “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us?” they said and were offended at him (Matthew 13:55-57). Isaiah too prophesied that he would have “no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2).
This may be pushing it, doctrinally as well as historically, but I like to think that Jesus got lost on the way to school, struggled to master a sport, fell down a few times in the dirt, ran to his mother crying about bullies, watched his wooden block creations fall to the ground, had upset stomachs, owned a pet that died, became confused when a little girl said she had a crush on him, and suffered through at least one boring class. Again, this may be speculative or even wrong, but I honestly feel that these very human experiences were part of what the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews meant when he said that Jesus “was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). I also find it interesting that Jesus preferred to call himself the Son of Man rather than the Son of God, although certainly he was both.
But even if these particulars are not true, we know in general, that Jesus, especially as an adult, knows what it is like to feel misunderstood, lonely, betrayed, sad, hurt, depressed, and unjustly persecuted—all pains that we endure in one form or another.
When Joseph Smith was imprisoned in Liberty Jail, living in extremely squalid conditions, uncertain as to what the Missouri mobs were doing to his family and to the church, he felt so despondent that even though he had had many revelations and enjoyed a very close relationship with the Lord he cried out in prayer “O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?” (D&C 121:1). And the Lord answered him, not as an abstract, passionless, transcendent Supreme Being, but as a compassionate human being, a divine human being, who knew firsthand what Joseph Smith was dealing with and could testify his own experience that Joseph could not only endure it well but would be the better for it:
And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.
The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he? (D&C 122: 7-8)
No, we are not greater than Jesus. He has suffered more than we ever will. He knows firsthand our pain and that there is no pain of ours that he does not understand. He also stands ready and able to succor us as both a god and a man, having both the power of a divine being and the compassion, understanding, and empathy of a human being. We can trust him completely to be our advocate and friend. He knows us and loves us and wants so much to help us. I know this, and on Christmas and other days, I give thanks for Jesus’ life as well as his death and resurrection, which has given us such wonderful gifts.
What child is this that we worship on Christmas day?
This, this is Christ the King;
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
Haste, haste to bring him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary