c h r i s t m a s 2 0 0 6 n o. 2 2 8
p a g e o n e
Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.The shepherds kneeling in adoration before a newborn child sleeping in a manger is an image of peace. The three Magi from the East kneeling down in homage and giving valuable gifts to the newborn child is another image of peace. Together, these two images illustrate the angels' song: "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors." The richest and the lowest classes of humanity unite in worship of the Christ Child, the Messiah, the Prince of Peace.
That's the Good News. The bad news is that other images and events in the narratives of Jesus' birth undermine the images of peace. John says that the Word that "became flesh" "came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him." Luke fleshes out John's words by telling us that Jesus was "laid in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn." Although most nativity scenes locate the manger in a stable, there is nothing in the text that says the manger was sheltered at all. The Holy Family may well have been left out in the cold altogether. The group of shepherds, who were sent by the angels to the manger where Jesus lay, may remind us of King David, who was a shepherd in his youth. In Jesus' time, however, shepherds were very close to the bottom of the social scale in the eyes of both Jews and Romans. That is, Jesus, himself an outcast at birth, was adored by fellow outcasts.
The journey to Bethlehem was a result of an imperial decree by the Emperor Augustus that all people should be registered and accounted for. This attempt to put everybody in their place was one aspect of the widely celebrated Pax Romana, the Roman Peace. Ironically, this "peaceful" ordering of the Empire required Joseph to go to his own town with his pregnant wife where, it turned out, there was no room for them. More troubling, King Herod, a client king in the Roman Empire, shows us just how violent life could be under the Roman "peace." When the Magi asked Herod where "the king of the Jews" had been born, "Herod was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him." When Herod realized that the Magi had avoided him on their return journey, he ordered the murder of all boys in Bethlehem under the age of two. Some thirty years later, Jesus would find out for himself how peaceful the Roman peace was for somebody like him. The angels' song, then, is not only a religious statement; it is a political statement. It is not the Roman emperor but Christ who truly establishes peace.
In highlighting Jesus' vulnerability in these ways, the story of Jesus' birth challenges us to examine our attitude to our own vulnerability and the vulnerability of others. In contrast with the Word made flesh, we usually do not wish to be vulnerable in any way, and we do everything possible to avoid it. In the process of trying to make ourselves invulnerable, we usually end up preying on the vulnerability of other people. It is, then, all the more amazing that the one Being in the universe who really is invulnerable chooses to be vulnerable, even to extent of being born in harsh circumstances and dying under circumstances harsher still. If we despise vulnerability in ourselves, do we then despise vulnerability in others? Even, or especially, if it is God who is vulnerable? Do we choose to welcome and protect the vulnerable Christ Child as did Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the Magi? Does the image of a newborn babe lying in a feeding trough make us wish to do something about it? That is the sentiment in a lullaby carol I sang as a chorister: "I will give you a coat of fur."
Welcoming and caring for a vulnerable person increases our own vulnerability, as Herod knew very well. Being vulnerable means that we risk being hurt, perhaps hurt very badly. What could possess any of us to choose to be so vulnerable? What could ever possess God to make such a choice? The only answer I can think of is Love. In our own human experience, love is the only thing that motivates us to choose to be vulnerable to another to the extent of serving that other. Caring for a helpless baby makes us vulnerable to the way the helpless child will react to the love and protection we give. There can be no clearer proof that God is love than the birth of the Christ Child in Bethlehem. Later in life, Jesus said that he "came not to be served but to serve." Knowing how vulnerable his serving us would make him, he added that he had come "to give his life a ransom for many." But in his very vulnerability, especially as a newborn child, Jesus himself needed to be served by us. In the Lauds hymn during the Christmas season, we sing that "the blest creator of the earth ...through whom the very birds are fed" depended on his creatures to feed him in turn. Like any other human child, Jesus could only enter the world by human permission. One of the most probing questions inspired by the Gospels is: What if Mary had said No when Gabriel asked her to allow a child to be conceived in her womb by the Holy Spirit instead of "let it be with me according to your word?" Similarly, we can ask: What if Joseph had refused to accept the child and withdrawn his protection of Mary and the child?
The images of peace presented in the Nativity stories all affirm the vulnerability both of others and oneself. Likewise, the images of violence all point to a rejection of vulnerability. The fact that vulnerability challenges us to do something makes it clear that God does not just drop peace into our laps. Peace happens when somebody does something to make it happen. Peace fails to happen not only when we commit acts of violence but when we do not care enough to do anything at all. In the Beatitudes, Jesus did not say: "Blessed are those who don't mind if there happens to be peace." Jesus said: "Blessed are the peacemakers." Peace is something we have to make.
The story of Jesus' birth also tells us that peace originates in a willingness to mirror God's love by being vulnerable enough to welcome and nurture the Christ Child through welcoming the least of God's people. We can easily imagine the innkeeper saying, after finding out whom he had turned away, that he would have found room for the Holy Family if only he had known who they were. This very protest shows us how much Jesus identifies with all people who do not have a room on this earth. More important, lest we think we will welcome Jesus if we know who he is, we should remember that Herod did know who the child was and he wanted to kill him. The slaughter of many children as a result of King Herod's rejection makes it clear that welcoming and protecting Jesus entails welcoming and protecting all who are vulnerable. But surely none of us would want to kill the Christ Child? Or would we? Matthew says that "all Jerusalem" was troubled by the news brought by the Magi. Indeed, "all Jerusalem" was sufficiently troubled by Jesus some thirty years later to succeed in doing what Herod tried and failed to do.
Making peace can be as simple as offering a cup of water to one of God's "little ones." The importance of such simple acts as welcoming and offering water for making peace gains further emphasis when we note that Jesus counters his disciples' argument about who is the greatest by telling them not only to welcome children but to become like them. That is, allow themselves to be as vulnerable as the children. Mark shows how Jesus' own disciples continued to have a hard time "getting it." Even after being told to welcome children rather than fight over who is the greatest, the disciples tried to drive away the children being brought to Jesus so that he might bless them.
So maybe the simple acts that make peace aren't so simple after all. The very fact that these acts of making peace are very simple makes it easy to overlook them for the sake of arguing about who is the greatest, or playing power politics as did the Emperor Augustus. What makes these simple acts really hard is that they must be done every day, and they must be done to our neighbors, that is to the people who are right around us. Thanks to the means of communication we have now, especially the Internet, some people halfway round the world may be among our neighbors. We must remain alert to opportunities for the small acts of peace that can be more important than we can guess. Christmas comes once a year, but the lessons it teaches us challenge us every day.
- Abbot Andrew