Jesus was born in circumstances of political and economic oppression. Palestine had been occupied and subdued under Roman imperialism. Caesar Augustus reigned supreme over a vast empire. His pomp and power knew no limits; and he was even made out to be a god.
The people of Palestine experienced hardship and harassment under this regime. They were taxed heavily to maintain the extravagance of the Emperor’s court and the might of its military machine. Those who dared to call for freedom and justice were brutally crushed. Some were thrown to the lions or crucified in public. This was to instil fear and prevent further uprisings.
A second level of local rulers assisted Caesar’s court to oppress their own. In Jesus’ time these were the Herods and the Chief Priests. They had traded their integrity for the crumbs of pomp and power that fell from Caesar’s table. The one thing they dared not do was to disagree with the philosophy of the empire.
Caesar’s court and its collaborator-opportunists despised each other but needed each other. They were compelled to stay together to serve each other’s interests. Together, they imagined that the Empire would last forever.
The gift of hope
The coming of Christ challenges the pomp and power of the empire and the myth of its invincibility. In time, the baby, born in a stable, grows up to offer a higher alternative to the violence and greed of the empire. His life and teaching stirs the human conscience and opens the way to liberating truth and fullness of life. This truth and life sets people free from the impulse to violate and victimise others, and awakens a yearning to include and safeguard the dignity and freedom of the other, now seen as sister and brother within one human family.
It is this new release of perspective and energy rooted in the human conscience which relentlessly discovers ways of overcoming barriers that deprive and divide humans. The human instinct to protect and care for each other is much stronger than the sum of greed of the violent empires of the world.
This then is the strong message of hope that Christmas brings; the oppression of empires, whether yesterday or today, do not last forever. When contested with the much more dynamic forces of truth, love, justice, humility, forgiveness, healing and reconciliation they are destined to collapse and give way to a higher order. The prophetic words of the late Martin Luther King that “the arc of history is bent towards truth and justice” are a precise summary of this reality.
Windows of hope
This Christmas message opens several windows for us all. It is for us to decide at which of these six we are to stand.
1. The stable born baby grows up to love the vulnerable and include the marginalised.
The liberating freedom that Christ offers cannot be confined to personal or institutionalised religion. The heart of Christianity is justice for the vulnerable and the oppressed; everywhere and always.
2. The peace and goodwill that the birth in the stable ushered, was first announced to poor and socially excluded shepherds.
Violence and injustice is never the end of the story. New signs of hope will always emerge in lowly and unexpected places like the stable and the open fields. When modest humans take on the responsibility to protect each other through solidarity, integrity, self-denial and self-scrutiny, ripples of change can grow into waves, and the tears of the violated will be wiped away.
3. The wise visitors, who were led to the stable and cooperated to save the saviour, were from other religious cultures.
Human resilience, values, passion and perseverance for social justice cannot be confined to any one religious tradition or ideology. It spans all boundaries and includes all cultures at all times.
4. The happenings in the stable did not immediately oust the Caesars and their accomplices.
In fact it made them more violent. There will always be those who resort to violence and injustice for the love of pomp and power. Empires replace empires. This is why the work of social justice never ends. Those who work for a safe, just and reconciled world have no rest; they are to be alert always, till the end.
5. The modest and the wise, unknown to each other but in a common search for truth and life, meet at the stable of hope.
Many from different backgrounds, prompted by different reasons and unknown to each other are in search of truth and life. Even if they think so at times, they are not alone in this search. Hope is generated when such persons meet in a common place. In this search, each has much to offer and all are to cooperate in a spirit of openness and generosity.
6. The message that grew from the stable is inclusive and universal.
It offers hope for the perpetrators of injustice as well. Those who build empires always have another chance to give up their violent and unjust ways and turn to a life of integrity through repentance and remedy of the damage done. When this happens victims and violators will be able to share the shade of the same tree.
With Peace and Blessings to all!