“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed ….” As another Christmas rolls around, the third since the economic meltdown, the nativity stories strike a special note. How many families, like Mary and Joseph, are homeless this holiday? How many children will be born without any providential star?
The birth narratives in the gospels are fictional. But they also capture a truth. That ancient world, like ours, was divided into haves and have-nots, the privileged and the powerless. And Jesus was certainly from the lower classes.
What the Roman world found incredible about these stories was not the assertion that God became man. Greco-Roman culture was full of accounts of heroes of divine origin. What rankled was the notion that the Infinite might condescend to take flesh among the poor … that a Nobody like Jesus might actually be Somebody.
But that was the radical teaching of this upstart rabbi: Everybody mattered. There were no expendable or throw-away children, no women who could be treated like trash, no people with disabilities whose conditions pushed them to the margins. Lepers, prostitutes, prisoners, foreigners. All were precious.
What would Jesus say about a so-called “Christian nation” where one-out-of-five children live in poverty? Where your parent’s net wealth is a better predictor of whether you’ll attend college than your own grades or test scores? Where the CEO of Wal-Mart earns more in a single hour than his employees make in an entire year?
My guess is he’d be hopping mad at those who invoke his name while ignoring his words.
It’s fine to sing about peace on earth. But there will ultimately be no goodwill among people or nations until there is more basic justice, when a kid from the barrio has an equal shot at success with Chelsea Clinton or a Wall Street broker’s boy.
“Insofar as ye have done it to the least of these, ye have done it also unto me.” Love of neighbor expressed as practical solidarity with the outsider and outcast. That, in my mind, is the real “Christmas Spirit.” It’s what saves this holiday from mere materialism and sentimentality, making it a challenge to the conscience and tonic for the soul.
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