The true meaning of Christmas, again
The following article was submitted by the Public Theology Forum, an ecumenical group of theologians and ministers of religion.
Every year around Christmas time, there is a great deal of discussion about the true meaning of Christmas. Has Christmas been overtaken by secularism? Has its 'true' meaning been lost? Does Christmas need liberating? Perhaps what is needed is a liberating embrace of Christmas so that the liberating message of the Christmas story can bring liberation.
Christmas is the time when Christians remember the coming of the Messiah, Emmanuel - God with Us - in flesh. That Emmanuel was born from the loins of a poor refugee Jewish girl amid animal filth piled high in a lowly stable and was welcomed by such social outcasts as shepherds and Gentile diviners should give us pause. The Gospel of Matthew (2.13-14) recounts the story of Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt to escape the attempt by Herod to kill the newborn Jesus; for many months until Herod dies, the family are refugees in another land.
The Gospel further recounts that the warning about Herod's intentions was given to the family by the Magi (2:1-11), Gentile diviners, who are associated with the Zoroastrian religion. Interestingly, the Christian tradition later gave names to these three so-called Wise Men, one of whom was called Caspar, who was believed to have been a black African. Clearly, the idea there is that from the beginning Jesus opened up a space for people of all races, genders, classes. He demonstrated that in his ministry that was open to all who were willing to answer his call to "come follow me".
The Gospel of Luke fills in the picture of the events surrounding the birth of the Messiah by telling of the shepherds. In Jesus' time, shepherds were a stigmatised group - they spent much of their time in the hills with the sheep (Lk 2:8-20). All kinds of unkind and untrue things were said about these shepherds, including involvement in unnatural sexual activities. Sounds eerily familiar, doesn't it? Yet these men were chosen by God to be the early recipients of the Good News of the birth of the Messiah. They receive the message with joy and go to find the baby lying in an animal feed box, surrounded by animal droppings and the smell of squalor.
Herod was the Jewish king, who Matthew's Gospel tells us massacred many babies in the hope of killing the Christ Child. Herod died with blood on his hands that could never be washed away.
There are many in our society today who are no better than, or no different than, Herod. These modern-day Herods order and carry out the massacre of innocents or those who are considered to be of no account in our society. Every day in Jamaica, we massacre innocents by the trafficking, rape, murder and abuse of our children. Too many of us turn a blind eye to what is essentially now an ingrained cultural practice.
Some religious leaders and Christians turn a blind eye to these happenings or spout a message that refuses to acknowledge the vulnerability of many of our women to rape, abuse, HIV infection (even in monogamous relationships), acid attacks and, ultimately, violent death. In contrast to Joseph, Jesus' earthly father, we justify definitions of masculinity that trap men in risky, dehumanising behaviours that make them more prone to early death and prone to devalue relationships of mutual respect and partnership with women.
The Christian message cannot be used to support the further harm to God's people. There are many Marys and Josephs and baby Jesuses in Jamaica today - how many men and women and their families are forced to flee from their homes because of threats to their lives from community thugs? How many men and women are forced to flee from their communities due to threats over their perceived orientation or the desires of community dons for 'fresh meat'?
Perhaps the Christmas message is for, and about, the marginalised of society - the poor, the stigmatised, the rejected, those who society has no use for. We can see how those are clearly in our Jamaican society: persons without skill or education; homeless gay men; teenage mothers; 'ghetto' people ... .
To those especially, Christmas should be a message of hope, not hopelessness. Hope is not the false joy of the kind of once-a-year treats and platitudes falling from the lips of the Herods of this world. Not of the religious Establishment that even today resides in Herod's palace and sends false messages of peace and promise, signifying nothing. No, the message of Christmas that takes real account of the filthiness of the birthing place and the low reputation of the birth attendants calls us to rail against a world, a society, a Church, a family that disrespects the poor and continues to support conditions that keep them poor and the victims of violence.
So, as we look again at the festivities surrounding the season, they need to be tempered by our real commitment to 'give birth' to Christ as Mary did, amid and among the poor and rejected, whose true membership in the household of God is proclaimed and lived. The Church must be found among the poor, serving the poor, becoming poor so that the Son of God can be truly made flesh in our lives.