Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
December 24, 2001
Saviour first shown to people without rights
We're all familiar with the story of Jesus' birth. Since we have heard it since early childhood the story has taken on the magic of a fairytale. As adults we tend to pass on the narrative to our children and grandchildren in the same way our parents and teachers told us.
But now that we're a little older we might be forgiven for taking a second look at the mystery surrounding the birth of this sweet baby Jesus. We may well ask how the story relates to the long history of powerless, humiliated and threatened humanity.
What meaning does the good news have for the millions of outcasts and refugees we have created in this world whose lives are filled with uncertainty and little hope of liberation?
Perhaps we have been guilty of embellishing the story to make it non-threatening to our middle class sensibilities and missed the sign of the animal feeding trough. It is clear from Luke's account that he is speaking of people who live on the edge of society.
"Joseph travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register with Mary who was promised in marriage to him. She was pregnant." There's enough cause here for polite society to marginalize them.
Rejected, the young couple find shelter in an animal shed where "Mary gave birth to her first son and wrapped him in cloths and laid him in a manger, there was no room for them in the inn."
An angel of the Lord appears to shepherds who spent their nights in the fields. "Do not be afraid," says the angel, no doubt aware that these homeless serfs, like the oppressed the world all over, lived in fear of anything authoritarian.
I'm only guessing that the king himself might suffer cardiac arrest when visited by a "great army of heavenly angels."
"I'm here with good news for you which will bring joy to the people," says the messenger. "This very day in David's town your Saviour was born. And this is what will prove it to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a feeding trough for animals."
This is the sign given to the shepherds so they might recognize him: The promised Messiah is born like their own children, out in the fields or in a stable. Like their own infants, the child is wrapped in clean rags and placed in a crude homemade contraption, a manger, perhaps strung from the rafters to allow a gentle rocking.
When Nicaraguan peasants discussed this story with Ernesto Cardenal, they observed: "If God was born in a rich home, then the shepherds would not have come to visit. They would not have been allowed to enter."
"They wouldn't have wanted to come, because they would have realized that he didn't come for them but for the rich."
But the shepherds see and understand. The promised Saviour is announced to them, a people without rights, an oppressed lower caste, the excluded, the poor.
They understand the language of the small and ordinary, the symbols of the powerless. The feeding trough was central to their lives.
This is why the story of Jesus' birth has a deeper meaning of joy and hope for them. God starts on their side in an unambivalent act of solidarity with their lot.
It is "peace on earth" and "good news for those with whom he is pleased." All who heard the shepherds tell of their experience were amazed.
"Mary remembered all these things and thought deeply about them." And so must we.
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