Christmas Day of the year of the Lord 2000. Two thousand years of the reality of the Incarnation of God in human flesh, the coming of the holy into our midst, the poor son of Mary and her husband, Joseph, son of God and son of Man, firstborn of all creation.
We Christians believe that this child is the hope seeded deep in the psyche of all those who waited for the day of the Lord in Judaism, though they still wait. For us, 2,000 years is a benchmark, in theory at least, a place in time that could be a great turning for all humanity.
But much of the world looks at us askance, dubious that this coming year will be any different in reality from the past 100 years or the past 1,000. Sadly, this past century alone will have to be remembered for its murders and misery-as the time in which we have killed more human beings than in the entire previous history of humankind. For if truth be told, these 2,000 years of Christianity have, for many, been a time of domination, exploitation, and destruction-a far cry from the bright vision of Isaiah that is cried out as the first reading of midnight Mass:
The people who walk in darkness
have seen a great light.
A light has dawned
on those who live in the land of the shadow of death. . . .
Every warrior's boot that tramped in war, every cloak rolled in blood,
will be thrown out for burning,
will serve as fuel for the fire.
For a child is born to us,
a son is given to us;
the royal ornament is laid upon his shoulder, and his name is proclaimed:
"Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."-Isaiah 9:1, 4-5
As Christians, we must begin this way with an acknowledgment of our failure in history and our betrayal of the gospel. We must promise atonement, restitution, a reversal of policies and attitudes, and a radical conversion to the will of God.
We are at a crossroads. There are some basics the human race has never learned (and, sadly, that includes Christians), but we must learn now. The most fundamental principle is perhaps best expressed in the Buddhist saying: "Do no harm." We must learn to listen and speak to one another with respect, to compromise, and to deal nonviolently with conflicts without escalation, rancor, vengeance, and self-righteousness.
In international terms this means: No more war. This is not an option. Any form of war must universally be outlawed and declared inhuman, unnatural, illegal, and unjust.
Call it the ultimatum of peace, the possibility of a future for human beings. Call it Christianity's first commandment of love-"Love one another as I have loved you"-in practice. Call it the Christmas child's project and gift.
Where God has gone
Christmas is for stories, for wide-eyed wakefulness, and wonder shared among young and old. Stories can make us weep for joy and help us to be silent in awe at this gift of God given 2,000 years ago and given this day and every day.
This story I borrow from Japan:
In many temples and shrines-along with the great halls, serene gardens, and tatami rooms hung with ancient scrolls-there are treasure rooms filled with glass cases. They hold manuscripts, calligraphy, paintings, artifacts, relics of founders, and exquisite treasures that were gifts to the monasteries.
Usually this is the last place to visit, and monks stand for hours beside the cases repeating verbatim for curious visitors the explanation of what is in the cases. They recite the words almost as though they were a sutra or chant.
They often do not look either at the case or at any of those listening. The visitors, however, peer into the case, nose to the glass because many of the objects are so old, unique, and beautiful.
This one time the monk was droning on but no one was bent over or looking down at the case. They were all watching him intently. The case had been emptied for cleaning or research purposes, and he was talking about empty space.
Finally he realized something was different and glanced down. Startled, he responded, "Oh, they've gone away," and the group was invited to move on to the next display.
The point of this simple story is that many of the old temples and monasteries are magnificent, but that in reality "the gods have departed" for elsewhere.
On Christmas we celebrate the truth that God has departed. God has gone to dwell outside the walls, the boundaries of society, the outskirts of towns and churches. God has gone to dwell with prisoners, those lame and leprous, those who are crowded out and wedged and hemmed in and those left utterly alone.
Especially, God has gone to dwell in caves, stables, on hillsides, in countries at war or in turmoil, and among those in distress. God is in mangers, among those counted as cattle, and among those who don't fit into the selfish and tight-fisted structures of the earth. That is where the angels visit, and the signs of recognition-of where to find God-are still given.
The unspoken question for us is: Have we gone where God is most easily seen and known and worshiped?
The heart of God
Indian poet Samuel Rayan writes from the point of view of Indian dalit spirituality. The dalits are members of the lowest castes in Indian society-outcasts, deprived of their rights-and have recourse only to God. But in this child born 2,000 years ago they find solace, pride, the radicalness of God's esteem for them, and a wild madness that gives them hope not only for the future but, in the midst of persecution and pain, for the present.
In his poem "Look at the Birds, Look at the Baby," Rayan writes:
Focus on the child here,
and on all such homeless children
and on children who are motherless
and riceless and unloved and put to beg
and tortured and abused,
and become stunted and hardened.
Think of them and cry for them. . . .
Need God have gone to such excess
to the extent of flesh-becoming,
and becoming so insignificant,
utterly unnoticed by emperors and
unseeable to armies and market
magnates? Need God have embraced such lowliness,
this dalitness, . . .
our weariness and our wounds? . . .
God can be as radical as Christmas,
as radical as this crib,
this cradle of the cross,
this preface to a story
of suffering and failure,
a foreword to Calvary.
In the ancient words of Isaiah, this child "breaks the yoke of our burden, the bar across our shoulders, the rod of the oppressors, and this child rules in peace, and there will be no end to it. Justice and righteousness we will know from this time onward and forever" (Isa. 9:3,6). This is the laying bare of God's heart in the body of his child.
"And this baby is the heart of God, the heart of the universe, our heart," says Rayan. For 2,000 years we have listened to the story, marveled at its simplicity and daring, and yet we are as far from understanding and experiencing its reality as those who first met this godchild in history.
No place in the living room
In the gospel for midnight Mass we are told that the story begins with an emperor's decree for a census and it lays out the names of those in power followed by the names of those who, except for God's choosing, would have been anonymous forever: Joseph of Bethlehem and Mary, his wife who was with child (Luke 2:1-5).
The ancient words can still startle if we remember that this is God's Incarnation.They were in Bethlehem when the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in the manger, because there was no place for them in the living room.-Luke 2:6-7
From the beginning, it is the story of those who have no place in the living rooms. This translation from the Christian Community Bible seems unusual; we are used to the phrase "no room for them in the inn." Those who pilgrimage to Bethlehem still find the caves where those who were the poor often dwelled. There were basically two rooms in the caves: a common room in front and one that was used as a shed or stable in the back.
Among the poor, traditionally, the child was born with the animals and placed in a crib, the feeding trough. The birth of this child, God-with-us, Emmanuel, is among the outcasts, the poor, the anonymous, and those who are pushed to the margins of life, to the extremes of survival. And at the same time out in the fields, among shepherds-some of the lowliest and most demeaned of society-is told the story of a chorus of angels, "with the glory of the Lord shining around them."
The greeting cards cannot do justice to the shattering of the night sky and the altering of history.As they were terrified, the angel said to them, "Don't be afraid; I am here to give you good news, great joy for all the people. Today a Savior has been born to you in David's town; he is the Messiah and the Lord. Let this be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger."Suddenly the angel was surrounded by many more heavenly spirits, praising God and saying: "Glory to God in the highest; peace on earth for God is blessing humankind."-Luke 2:10-14
Again, the ancient translations ring in our memories: "Peace on earth to all of goodwill." But God's graciousness is for all: friend, foe, enemy, even those who resist the blessing that God shows all of us in the Incarnation, in God seizing our flesh and claiming a human heart that beats and bleeds, needs and loves-and so will die.
This is the essence of our religion, what ties all of our lives together: our politics and economics, social relations, personal dignity, and knowledge and worship of God. We follow the one who opted for the lost, the losers, the children of the world, the forsaken and anonymous, the expendable, the ones in the fields, and those counted in a census as animals.
This is God's solidarity with earth. This is Bethlehem's starry night and the secret that the poor have awaited. This is prelude to Calvary's harsh daylight execution and the wood of the cross. Feeding trough and hard bed and board-the legacy of so many of God's children.
As the shepherds are summoned to the manger and the swaddled child, we are summoned to the presence of the poor. The glory of God declares for all the world to hear that God is not with the rulers of the world. God is outside, with those who find no room inside, who often find no room with us either.
Bethlehem is still disputed territory in the West Bank and everywhere the poor of God huddle and wait for safety, for aid, and for hope as other human beings decide whether people are worth caring for or intervening on their behalf.
Our God made that decision 2,000 years ago-in favor of the expendable and the fringe folk, the babies and children born of the insignificant of the earth. Have we really made that choice yet?
Christmas theology sings lullabies to the child of God born to us who makes all people of the universe the beloved daughters and sons of God. The orphans, widows, oppressed, demeaned, refugees, poor and hungry are more than our neighbors, they are our relatives, born of one flesh and of God's great heart.
The cry of Mary's child is a divine cry for justice and a cry of liberation for all. It is the cry of God praying that we will remember why all of us and creation were made: for love, for love alone!
The best gift
My final story comes from Richard Deats, editor of Fellowship, the magazine of the peace organization Fellowship of Reconciliation. It was passed to me by a friend. I copy it below as I received it.
In 1994, two Americans answered an invitation from the Russian Department of Education to teach morals and ethics (based on biblical principles) in the public schools. They were invited to teach at prisons, businesses, the fire and police departments, and a large orphanage.
About 100 boys and girls who had been abandoned, abused, and left in the care of a government-run program were in the orphanage. The two Americans relate this story:
It was nearing the holiday season, time for the orphans to hear, for the first time, the traditional story of Christmas. We told them about Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem. Finding no room in the inn, the couple went to a stable, where the boy Jesus was born and placed in a manger.
Throughout the story, the children and staff sat in amazement as they listened. Some sat on the edges of their stools, trying to grasp every word. Completing the story, we gave the children three small pieces of cardboard to make a crude manger. Each child was given a small paper square, cut from yellow napkins I had brought with me. No colored paper was available in the city.
Following instructions, the children tore the paper and carefully laid strips in the manger for straw. Small squares of flannel, cut from a worn-out nightgown an American lady was throwing away as she left Russia, were used for the baby's blanket. A doll-like baby was cut from tan felt we had brought from the United States.
The orphans were busy assembling their mangers as I walked among them to see if they needed any help. All went well until I got to one table where little Misha sat. He looked to be about 6 years old and had finished his project.
As I looked at the little boy's manger, I was startled to see not one, but two babies in the manger. Quickly, I called for the translator to ask why there were two babies in the manger.
Crossing his arms in front of him and looking at his completed manger scene, the child began to repeat the story very seriously. For such a young boy, who had only heard the Christmas story once, he related the happenings accurately-until he came to the part where Mary put the baby Jesus in the manger.
Then Misha started to ad-lib. He made up his own ending to the story as he said, "And when Maria laid the baby in the manger, Jesus looked at me and asked me if I had a place to stay. I told him I have no mama and I have no papa, so I don't have any place to stay. Then Jesus told me I could stay with him.
"But I told him I couldn't, because I didn't have a gift to give him like everybody else did. But I wanted to stay with Jesus so much, so I thought about what I had that maybe I could use for a gift.
"I thought maybe if I kept him warm, that would be a good gift. So I asked Jesus, 'If I keep you warm, will that be a good enough gift?'
"And Jesus told me, 'If you keep me warm, that will be the best gift anybody ever gave me.'
"So I got into the manger, and then Jesus looked at me and he told me I could stay with him-for always."
As Misha finished his story, his eyes brimmed full of tears. Putting his hand over his face, his head dropped to the table and his shoulders shook as he sobbed and sobbed. The little orphan had found someone who would never abandon nor abuse him, someone who would stay with him for always.
That is the story of Christmas, and 2,000 years later the story must be told once more. Even more, it must be lived.
Now it is up to us to keep the world warm, with the fire of community, of love and reconciliation, of forgiveness and hope, making sure there are no orphans and there is always a place in our living rooms for those who find themselves out in the cold because of war, nationalism, religious and social divisions, and selfish hate.
What child is this, born to us today? This godchild Jesus born today is humankind born for life, for truth, for tender regard of all that is made, and for love. This child born today is every one of us born through incarnation, born for good news and for life, ever more abundantly.
We are born for atonement, for restitution, for peace and reconciliation, for communion, and for liberation. We are born for singing with angels and for standing in silence and awe before the lowliness and loveliness of our God born in every human's body and heart.
This is the Christmas child that ardently desires to be born in our hearts this day. We believe that our God will come again in glory. Perhaps God does, in the shining eyes of every child born on earth.
Maybe this year we will come and kneel before one another in awe and wonder, bringing the gift of peace to the earth and to our God who, from the beginning, has been hiding among us, hoping for all of us to become the Christmas child.
Peace be with us. Paz. Shalom. Shanti. Paix. (Add in your breath a word of peace this day as you bend over the manger and the child.)
This article originally appeared in the December 1999 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 64, No. 12, pages 12-17).