Here we are on the cusp of Christmas. We are near the end of Advent, the season of preparation. Now is the annual Christian remembrance of the coming of Jesus.
Throughout December we've enjoyed the familiar stories from our Gospels. The story of Mary, who hears an angelic message that she will have a child. In exultation, Mary sings a song of remarkable prescience. She imagines God enabling a dramatic reversal of power -- the mighty are thrown down and the lowly lifted up; the hungry are filled and the rich sent away empty. Remarkable words from a young, vulnerable peasant woman who has found herself suspiciously pregnant, a dangerous condition in a patriarchal world.
Through a dream, her fiancé Joseph realizes Mary's pregnancy is God's will, and instead of banishing her (or worse), he takes her under his protection, to respect and care for her and her child.
When Mary is due, the family is homeless in Bethlehem, traveling to enable the Empire to exact taxes that exploit the poor and concentrate wealth among the powerful. The child is born in a stable for animals. Angels sing of the birth to nearby shepherds who come to visit. Shepherds were commonly regarded as thieves and trespassers. But the Holy Family welcomes them warmly. We also read of a visit from Magi, foreign stargazers from another religion and culture. They too find welcome in the manger. The work of human reconciliation has begun.
Shortly after the child's birth, the family must flee. Like so many other families, then and today, they are threatened and uprooted by political tyranny and violence. Fortunately, they find welcome as refugees in Egypt. May we pray and work for a similar welcome for the refugees of our day.
When this child becomes a man, he initiates his public ministry with the words of the prophet Isaiah. Jesus announces Good News to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the initiation of "the year of the Lord's favor," an allusion to the Biblical Jubilee year when all debts were forgiven and the unequal distribution of wealth was to be reallocated equally among the nation's families.
Jesus gathered people around him, inviting others into a loving community grounded in Jesus' vision of the merciful God of love. His primary daily activity was teaching and healing.
His teaching centered on his summary of the divine law: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. He broadened the definition of neighbor beyond family, community, tribe, race, religion and nation. My neighbor is anyone in need, including the stranger. Like the other prophets, Jesus had a soft spot for the widow, the orphan and the alien.
In his healing activity, Jesus brought this good news especially to those regarded by the dominant culture as unclean and marginalized. He freely gave the same gifts of healing and feeding to foreigners that he offered to his own people. The openness of his table was scandalous in a world where honor demanded one separate from the dishonorable. He welcomed women as well as men to sit at his feet as disciples.
Jesus told a story in which everyone receives a full daily wage regardless of how briefly they may have worked. At the center of his best-known prayer is the petition for daily bread and for the forgiveness of debts.
In another story, Jesus condemned a rich man who ignored the needs of his poor neighbor Lazarus. Jesus invited a good man to give away his considerable wealth and to join Jesus' disciples.
He forgave those who were known to be sinners, unclean, immoral and marginalized. The only people he condemned were those who regarded themselves as better than others.
Jesus' only act of violence was to overturn the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple who used their economic power to exploit the poor.
Today it seems important to retell these ancient stories. In a world where wealth and power grows more concentrated while the meek and lowly remain economically stuck; where the rich and powerful once again enact taxes to benefit the wealthy, leaving little encouragement for the poor; where neighbors lack access to health care, and what they now have is threatened; where leaders stoke fears of our neighbors for their color, nationality or religion. We need to hear again these stories. We need to embrace an old vision anew.
O little child of Bethlehem, be born in us today.
Commentary on 12/19/2017
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