Reflections on the readings for Christmas 2020
Archbishop Oscar Romero used to say, ‘Some truth can only be seen through eyes that have cried.’ Though many of us may not be familiar with the names of siblings Antony, 13, Angelina, 12 and Sienna Abdullah, 9, and their cousin Veronique Sakr, 11, who were killed on their way to buy ice-cream. In February 2019, their parents seem to have experienced what Romero wrote. The families of these children have launched an annual forgiveness day as a way of remembering them. Their words of forgiveness have powerfully turned hurt and pain and lost into forgiveness for the sake of healing.
Not everyone can do this but this family have held up what we as Christians celebrate the God who come to dwell in our world and walk with us. They have seen a truth through their tears and this is the experience of the people Romero served. It is the story of God who has come among us! People who have lost a child know this pain whether their children were killed by gun violence, drug overdoses, poverty, lack of health care, abuse and even sentenced to death as in the USA. In many ways they put the Gospel into words better than any theology books.
Whilst many sing carols about ‘Emmanuel,’ - ‘God with us’ – the profound depth of these words is missed. It is about a God who joins the struggle here on Earth. Pope Francis keeps reminding us of ‘people on the move’ and this God as we heard last Sunday has always journeyed with and within people (human flesh) to identify with the victims of poverty, violence and neglect.
Howard Thurman: ‘When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.’ What if Jesus had been born in our time? What kind of reception would Jesus and his family be given? Would we treat him any differently than he was treated by the Roman Empire?
The birth story of Jesus speaks on a number of fronts where the life, teachings and crucifixion of Jesus have been drowned out by partisan politics, secularism, materialism and war. Even the church has largely, shied away from applying Jesus’ teachings to war, poverty, immigration, etc., with the exception of individuals throughout history (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Martin Luther King Jr.) who looked around and asked the hard questions. Basically, there has been a disconnect between Jesus’ teachings and suffering of least of these mentioned in Matthew 25.
God comes into this world as a baby in the middle of a genocide – the massacre of the ‘Holy Innocents’ - an unspeakable act of violence perpetrated by Herod that forced Mary and Joseph to flee with Jesus to Egypt as a refugee – something that continues to be perpetrated. The good news of life is not good news for Augustus. It is non-violent, non-exploitative, non-profit, non-exclusive. It is compassionate, for all people, especially for the poor. The ‘good news’ of the Jesus story first came to a community on the edges of society. His story was going to be first for those on society’s edges, not those in positions of privilege and power. Christianity is not a religion of disembodied spirituality at all but about the heart where God is revealed in the vulnerability of newborn flesh and in the heartbreak of broken flesh on a cross. The question for those who are at the centre is whether they will participate in the socially transformative work that is already taking place on the margins of their society. If that is the case, then should we not have concern for any violation or starvation or trafficking of any human bodies as that which God took on to be with us?
Miguel A. De La Torre in Reading the Bible from the Margins, writes, ‘Jesus’s audience was primarily the outcasts of society. This is why it is important to understand the message of Jesus from the perspective of the disenfranchised. The marginalized of Jesus’ time occupied the privileged position of being the first to hear and respond to the gospel. By making the disenfranchised recipients of the Good News, Jesus added a political edge to his message.’ (Amazon Kindle).
Jesus’ birth narratives in both Matthew and Luke have much to offer those working for a world of love and justice today. They whisper to us of the need for communities to prioritise the poor, the insignificant, forgotten, and the marginalised. These are the people who gathered at the lowly manger and dared to believe that this child, this good news, really belonged to them. They knew implicitly that this child would not affirm the dominant structure of society of inequity, oppression, exploitation (See Luke 4:18f), but would gather the outcast, the socially marginalised, and those labeled and treated as less than by the privileged and powerful. When Luke retells the Jesus story, he intends to contrast Jesus’ vision for a human community (reign) of no more oppression, exploitation or marginalization with the much larger Roman society (empire) they lived in. The imperial, capitalist and anti-immigrant institutions and forces in this world that uphold violence in the name of Christianity would face an existential crisis if they were forced to actually contend with the radical assertion within Christian scriptures: that a heart, the coming of Christ was a profound act of God’s solidarity. Jesus absorbed that violence and triumphed over it with love, with mercy, with forgiveness as have the Abdullah and Sakr families.
But Herod is still on the move. Children are victims of violence and abuse, separated from their families at the borders of countries in the Europe and the USA or holed up in places like Christmas Island and Immigrants perishing in the waters of the Mediterranean. Children are still stolen to fight other peoples’ children. Women are killed by chauvinist violence. There is no agreement on dealing with the climate emergency we face. Millions live on the streets without adequate food and health care and housing. In all this, we need to keep finding ways of telling the Christmas story about a God who has joined the struggle here on Earth and is more interested that we get dirty in the trenches than decorate places of worship. God cares that we care for the most vulnerable people on Earth: ‘Whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.’ The Christmas story teaches us that God is with us — if we are with the poor. COVID-19 has held a mirror to Christianity, just as the epidemics of the past did. During a resurgence of the bubonic plague, Martin Luther took care of the sick and dying when many others chose to flee. Many have and do the same now during the Covid pandemic. They took seriously Jesus’ teaching about how believers would be distinguished from unbelievers: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
So, we not only rejoice in God pitching a tent with us but as Jesus’ followers are invited out of comfortable abodes to pitch our tent with the most vulnerable and needy. God comforts the poor and awakens those who are comfortable. We hear how during this pandemic the rich are now much richer while the poor are much poorer and much more numerous. It is another form of disaster capitalism.
In all this, another world is being proclaimed in the ruins of this world. It is being born each day amid labour pains, from struggle and tenderness. Countless social movements are lifting their voices and hands for this other world within this world, where all of us beings will be freer and more brotherly, and happier with less. They are little lights lit in our hearts. It's the true Christmas. It's the world Jesus saw coming. It's the world that he hoped for. It is the world he imagined and brought to birth from cradle to cross, from cross to resurrection. We can too.
Jesus’ birth narratives are not calling for societally privileged Christians today to begin including those presently marginalised. They call these specific Christians to recognise that God is already working in the margins of their society. The question for those at the centre is not whether they will include the marginalised at their table, but whether they will participate in the socially transformative work that is already taking place on the margins of their society.
Another world is possible if we choose it. Jesus’ birth reveals a new world order, a world not under Caesar, or Trump, or capitalists, but under the direction of God’s design for the redemption of all peoples. In this world, God’s Word is heard by the humble. There is place even for the shepherds. There is hope for the oppressed. God has not forgotten us or abandoned us to the brokenness we have created. The story of Christmas is both an announcement of hope and a call to humility. God arrives in ways that are small, poor, hidden, and unexpected and comes into a world torn, as we have seen, by violence, battered by the death-dealing forces of empire, struggling against powers and principalities that seek to extinguish the light. God is here among people who are overlooked and marginalized. God is decidedly present among those for whom—in the here and now—there is no room at the inn. Mary’s ‘yes’ reveals and makes possible the entrance of God in Jesus into the world as a subversive act. A social revolution against unjust rule. The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood. There is no room for exclusion. There is no room for exceptionalism. The promise of God’s presence cannot be undone. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.
As Christmas draws near, we do well to remember that what happened in Bethlehem is only part of the story. That baby grew up to be a man who did not turn away from evil but spoke out against it, and we must do no less. We must also remember that we are part of a web of life where interrelationships and interdependencies are the rule. May we acknowledge the Oneness of all creation and recognise God’s self-giving in Jesus and in all human beings as well as in all Creation. Do we have the eyes and ears to perceive it?