The Advent and Christmas seasons are my favorite liturgical seasons of the Christian calendar year. After all, celebrating the joyous mystery of the incarnation of God in Jesus is at the heart of the faith. Yet, easily lost in the tinsels and the heightened commercialism and materialism of the holiday, is the sobering reminder that the story of Jesus’ birth was attended by dread. It is a subplot in the birth narrative of Jesus that is often omitted, but needs to be told time and again.
Jesus was born during the reign of the cruel king, Herod. The social conditions of that time were essentially a third-world context under a military dictatorship, where only a small minority born into nobility and opulent lives lorded it over the entire society. There was an elite class of Jews in that setting, granted favors by the ruling Roman class, and thus mostly functioned within their religious circles as collaborators of the empire. The rest of the Jewish population were poor, oppressed, demeaned, and marginalized.
The birth narrative continues by indicating that Herod, alerted by pagan wise men from the East who came looking for “him who is born king of the Jews”, felt threatened and asked the wise men in secret to return and tell him of the location of the infant. But the wise men were warned in the dream not to return to Herod, and they departed using another way. Enraged, the narrative says that Herod ordered the killing of all male children in Bethlehem under the age of two. An angel appears to Joseph, urging him to take with haste Mary and the infant Jesus, and escape to Egypt.
Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.
The Good News was bad news to tyrants and to all the spirits of oppression and hate in the world. It still is. We still live in world full of danger, hate, violence, bigotry, and the avaricious will to power. And we continue to struggle against a global pandemic whose movement through human communities is now largely determined by human behavior.
But God – out of love – chose to be like us, in order to be with us in our full humanity. God’s promise of presence through scripture is now fulfilled. God is with us, now and forever, truly divine and truly human. God is Emmanuel, “God with us”, always inviting and urging us, showing us the way, to live into God’s presence and reign of love and shalom.
And whenever and wherever we proclaim the Good News, and invoke the greeting, “Merry Christmas”, we also declare ourselves freed from the grip of earthly kingdoms ruled by greed, jealousies, deceit, fear, bigotry, violence to the body and spirit, and from the grip of any and all that demean and enslave the human body and spirit.
The first words of the gospel story announcing the incarnation were, “Fear not!” Indeed, as a line on one of the great Christmas hymns exults, “The hopes and fears of all the years, are met in thee tonight!”