Christmas takes our breath away every year: we never tire of celebrating it! The music, the candles, our churches and places of worship bathed in light… Our Scripture readings are filled with powerful symbols and images of something entirely new happening for the whole world. The wonderful Infancy narratives of the Gospels invite us to become children again in order to appreciate what is really happening on this night. We cannot help but allow ourselves to be caught up in the wonder, the awe and the peacefulness of this holy night. But the beauty and history of this night also invite us to journey back in time and to take a closer look at the world which welcomed Jesus and those who first recognized him as the long-awaited One.
Jesus was born into a world in which it seemed, on the surface at least, that salvation and peace had already been achieved. The Roman Republic had come to an end. Caesar Augustus was emperor and Pontifex Supremus and he had himself declared a God. The great Roman poet Virgil, in his Ecologues, had hailed Augustus as the herald of a new age. Monuments were built to honor Augustus' birth as the beginning of good news for the world. Another monument to him in Asia Minor proclaimed Caesar Augustus as the "Savior of the World". It is against this background that the evangelist Luke sets the birth of Jesus.
Luke tells us that there was peace during Augustus' reign, but it was peace only in that there was no war. What Luke is really saying is that the imperial propaganda was phoney, fake news! Sure, there was peace on the surface, but the causes of war were boiling beneath the surface. The society of Augustus' time was an alienated one: a world divided into conquerors and victims, occupiers and the occupied, the very wealthy and the starving poor, those who were free and an ever-growing population of slaves. And this alienation not only existed in society's structures of sinfulness, but also in peoples' hearts. The old Roman spirit had collapsed. Roman virtues were gone and the Roman gods were declared dead. There was peace on the surface, but political, social, economic and spiritual unrest underneath. People back then truly yearned for a genuine sense of salvation, peace, wholeness, harmony and healing. And all of those things are summed up in the Hebrew word "Shalom".
It’s precisely into a world such as that that Luke brings the Christmas proclamation of the angel: "Do not be afraid...I proclaim good news to you- tidings of great joy to be shared by all the people. This day, in David's city a Savior has been born to you, who is Messiah and Lord". The desires of the people of Luke's time are not that different from the desires of women and men today. Do we, too, not seek salvation in the midst of the meaninglessness that eats away at our hearts? Do we, too not long for reconciliation and peace that can heal our broken relationships and make our lives truly worth living.
The message of the Incarnation is not an invitation to behold an innocent baby lying in a manger, but rather to take sides with God who agitates for reform and shatters the status quo. It is an invitation from God to become instruments of dialogue and peace. The child of Bethlehem who later becomes "Ecce Homo", the man of the cross of Jerusalem means that it's no longer business as usual folks. More than anything, the Christmas story is a vision of how God is present in the world. It is not the political and ecclesiastical power structures of the world that grant salvation and peace. The Christmas stories ask us a question: Do we share their vision of life and peace that find expression in the life of a particular man? And can we make that vision of life, peace and wholeness our vision- a living reality in our own lives. The true peace of Christmas is given to all those who long for healing, forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation, unity, justice and peace each day of their lives. They are the sons and daughters of God's good pleasure, the ones whom God truly favors.
No one described the whole Christmas story better than Pope Francis when he addressed a crowd of nearly a million people in Philadelphia in September 2015 during the Vigil Ceremony for the World Meeting of Families. Pope Francis told the crowd gathered on Benjamin Franklin Parkway: “And where did God send his Son? To a palace, to a city, to an office building? He sent him to a family. God came into the world in a family. And he could do this because that family was a family with a heart open to love, a family whose doors were open.”
This little family was humble, poor, faithful and knew the life of refugees, having to flee to Egypt (or most likely Gaza) to avoid the terror of a despotic ruler. When we read about the turmoil the child Jesus brought into the lives of Mary, Joseph, the Magi, Herod, the whole of Jerusalem, and all the newborn babies of Bethlehem – we are forced to ask ourselves whether the adult Christ challenges and moves our lives in the same way. When we read the story of the shepherds and their vision of angelic choirs, we discover anew how God can break into our life as well. In remembering and reliving the angelic roles in Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the veil that separates us from the world of the spirit is drawn back. The experience of the Magi reminds us that all who make the tedious journey to the truth will finally encounter it and be changed in the process. They can never go back to a “business as usual” way of life. When we meet Christ, and see who he really is, we will never be the same.
The drama of Jesus' birth at Christmas reminds us that the elite and powerful, those who benefited most from keeping the status quo, were the least open to the in-breaking of the Kingdom, to new insights, to solutions to the injustices and the heartbreaks of this world. Who caught on to the whole story in the beginning? First, some shepherds from Beit Sahour. Simple folk can usually find the Lord by crossing a field like shepherds; they bring their poverty, humility, and simple openness. But knowledge, wisdom, power, prestige, and lack of humility often lead to despair. People who believe they have the immediate, final truth and clarity about anything often are led into bleak, dead-end streets or they remain lost in the desert of solitude, self-sufficiency, selfishness, and despair.
Then it was a few wise men from the east. In the end, the Magi went their own way, and because they refused to be seduced by cynicism, because they allowed themselves to be surprised by this great joy, the star to which they had committed themselves appeared again. This is not only the description of the times into which Jesus was born, but also our times. When we have found our lasting joy in the midst of the encircling gloom, cynicism, despair, indifference, and meaninglessness, the only thing to do is to kneel and adore.
If we are truly wise, let us do what the wise astrologers did. When we hear the voice of the old kings of death and fear and cynicism, let us have the courage to go our own way – rejoicing. The star and the journey will send us onward, by newer paths, to come into the presence of the Child of Light and the Prince of Peace, who is the fulfillment of humanity’s deepest hopes and desires for light, justice, love, and peace.