A universal story of hope for today’s world, whatever you believe

Dec 23, 2021
Christmas candle
Jesus' message of compassionate action and inclusion is just as relevant now as 2000 years ago. (Image: Unsplash)

Questions about the birth story of Jesus and his divinity are secondary to his message of love and peace, which has never been more relevant.

If we can push our way through the tinsel and shopping crowds — or quieten the anxious urgencies of whether we will have Christmas at all this year — then it may be possible to wonder freshly at a story unlike any other in its delivery of hope. And it is a story of hope, for all that it has been repeatedly cheapened.

In fact, it may be possible to make a case that Christianity remains the dominant world religion less because of the promises of heavenly “salvation” than because of the compelling story of a child born into exceptionally difficult circumstances in THIS world about 2000 years ago.

Was this child the Messiah for whom the Jewish people were waiting? (Jews would say not.) Could he possibly have been God in human form? (Secularists would say that’s laughable.) In adulthood, was he “just” another Jewish teacher, if radically, “offensively” inclusive in his teachings? Or was he a weird trouble-maker, ignoring conventions, defying the authorities, emphasising love for one another over the strict laws of religious observance that most Jews — like him — regarded as inviolable?

These are questions that have occupied great and lesser minds for two millennia. What’s inarguable, though, is that here is a birth story where material privilege and worldly status are totally out of the picture. It is a story of disgrace, confusion, displacement, poverty, humility, courage. It is the story of very young woman who accepted her mysterious fate, a partner who chose to share the shunning and dishonour with her, and a child who grew up to warn against clinging too hard to man-made laws that threaten to impoverish us spiritually. Also — shockingly — to be wary of material comforts that will distract us from discovering and living life’s deepest, truest meaning.

It is a story that’s easy to dismiss. Or mock. But listen in for themes that may resonate, even in an age of brutal cynicism like ours — and when social justice activism is often long divorced from spiritual inquiry and quest.

A very young woman is visited by an angel and told she is pregnant despite being a virgin and promised to Joseph. Her horror is total. She is willing, though, to accept not only the mystery of this conception — yes, disputable — but also the shame. So does Joseph, who plans to abandon her until he, too, is visited by an angel in a dream and told that her wild story of her child’s conception is true. He will bear the inevitable shunning with her: a girl pregnant before marriage disgraces her own and her partner’s communities as much as herself.

Was Maryam/Miriam/Mary much older than 14? Perhaps not. Yet she showed uncommon courage and acceptance, most particularly when it must have dawned on her that all the circumstances of the birth she was anticipating were humbling in the extreme. When the adult Jesus was crucified 33 years later, he was mocked as “King of the Jews”. There is nothing royal, though, in the story of his birth.

Joseph and Mary are forced to travel to Bethlehem as part of a census-taking. When Mary goes into labour, there is no room for them in the inn where they had hoped to stay. Instead, they shelter in a stable, and there Jesus is born. The angels, “wise men”, “three kings”, are elements of this story that to an extent are neither here nor there. They add drama but not necessarily credibility. In fact, the opposite is likely.

What is rather more difficult to dispute are circumstances painfully familiar in our day. We glimpse a precious infant being born in the most deprived of circumstances and parents forced not once but twice to flee (from Bethlehem to Egypt then only later back to Nazareth). These parents had to rely on the kindness of strangers, had to bear questions they couldn’t answer, had to survive without the comforts of “belonging”. If this whole story is apocryphal, then why such a total absence of status? Or security? Or the possibility of any confidence in a future not fully controlled by seemingly heartless others?

Setting aside all disputes about Jesus’ divinity, dare we assume that it is only a child raised in the humblest surroundings and the most complex circumstances who could adequately comprehend what material scarcity is — and how different this is from spiritual poverty? Is it only such a person who can speak authentically to those on the margins — because that is the place he came from?

Hope is real here. Our outer circumstances do not define us. They cannot. The value of any life is not determined by others’ superficial or callous judgments. What this brown child of “Middle Eastern appearance” grew up to teach was nothing short of revolutionary. He spoke for individual dignity and the common good as inextricable. He spoke of us belonging to one another, without exception.

The account of Jesus’ birth is fullest in the gospel of Matthew. It’s in that same gospel that we get such gems (from Jesus, reported by Matthew) as the Beatitudes, calling us to be peacemakers. We’re warned strongly against judging others, especially harshly, never mind condemning them. We are told that the worst fate lies for those who refuse food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, shelter for the homeless. “I was a stranger, and you refused to take me in.”

You don’t need any elaboration from me here. The parallels with our time are painfully obvious. You need only hope that this universal message of compassionate action and inclusion has far, far more consequence than any favoured dogma shutting us out from each other or splitting us off from ourselves. What is the greatest commandment, Jesus was asked. His answer is unequivocal: “First, that you would love God with all your heart, soul and mind. And the second, that you would give your neighbour the same care (love) you give to yourself. On these two commandments, the whole Law hangs.”

Jesus was born and died a Jew. There is an exquisite short prayer that is part of the Jewish morning tradition: “Blessed is the Source, out of which all being has come.” There are no divisions evoked here, only wholeness. Over the most recent 2000 years our technical advances testify to human brilliance. But our spiritual progress — especially in the West and among the non-Indigenous — has a very long way to catch up. Regarding all of life with respect and care takes high levels of self-trust and inner composure. Subduing the need to make heroes of ourselves and devils of others remains, for many, a bridge too far.

Over the centuries many millions in all kinds of circumstances have, however, willingly and fruitfully followed a message of love. Some would have been self-described Christians; many not. There is nothing exclusive in the call to live embracingly. It is a quality of heart, courage and consciousness whatever the outer circumstances — as the nativity story itself demonstrates. It is also a choice. A choice for peace on earth. A magnificent and transformative choice for goodwill and wellbeing to all.

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