Change has come, since 2,000 years ago
Those were brutal times. Small countries like Israel writhed under the iron boot of imperial Rome. Greco-Roman culture, billed as the apex of civilization in the ancient world, sanctioned a structure where a thin layer of citizens were borne on the backs of slaves, viewed merely as “living tools” by one of their best thinkers, Aristotle. Unwanted female babies were exposed to the elements in the forest or thrown in garbage heaps, and the main spectator sport was watching gladiators battle each other to their gory death.
Israel itself suffered a leanness of spirit: For four centuries God was silent. No prophet broke into the scene to bring clarity or a word of hope to a nation living in ambiguous times. The religious leaders were either narrow legalists like the Pharisees who thought that punctilious observance of the law would bring about the prophesied messianic age, or liberal interpreters like the Sadducces who pandered to popular will and sought power by collaborating with the Roman colonizer. The Davidic dynasty had long decayed, and in its place was a usurping Idumean named Herod who murdered his way to the throne and curried favor with Rome and the Jewish people by impressive engineering feats, building cities named after the Caesars and reconstructing the temple.
Into this context God the Father sent his son. He came as a helpless baby parented by a woman barely in her teens and a carpenter so bewildered by the circumstances of his birth that he had to be assured by an angel that it was the Holy Spirit’s doing.
There were no signs of the birth of a king except for an angel announcing the joyful news to shepherds keeping watch over their flock, and a star that appeared to astrologers from the East. Like all deep things of God’s doing, the advent of the Christ Child was hidden except to those who were the simplest and wisest.
There were no courtiers, no heralds but for a brief moment when the sky opened and the heavenly host sang of the glory and peace that was to come through this newborn king.
But the portentous significance of the event was not lost on Herod. Obsessively paranoid, he went on a rampage, ordering the killing of all children two years and under in Bethlehem. The coming of the true king was not without great bloodshed; the powers knew that their days were numbered.
Today we hear again the sound of “wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children…” The Herods of this world continue to rise and rule with an iron fist. That the Messiah has come seems like a distant memory whose meaning is lost in the mist of history.
But then social historians tell us that if, in our time, slavery is abhorred and has ceased to be seen as an economic necessity, women are given equal rights to social space, and racial discrimination is at least viewed as detestable if not totally eliminated, these are gains largely accounted for by the rise of Christianity in the western world. The Pauline vision that “in Jesus there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free” set forth a new social ethic that marked those small communities of believers known as “followers of The Way.”
The social impact was immediate. Even when Christians were yet a small and powerless minority movement (estimated at 200,000 in a total population of 30 million in the first century), funds of the fledgling churches were used to buy the freedom of slaves. Believers cared for the children of prostitutes, gladiators, and infants abandoned on the rubbish heaps in the Roman Empire.
More recently, we think of William Wilberforce and his colleagues in Parliament working for the abolition of the slave trade, or Martin Luther King dreaming of a just world beyond Alabama’s cotton fields. Jesus says his people are like walking lamps. And a lamp is put on a stand, so that it gives light to all in the house. Imagine a one-room peasant house in Palestine all lighted up because of a single lamp!
What can happen when a determined minority grows into a critical mass that overturns a corrupt social order? The sociologist Robert Bellah speaks of a small minority of Christians in Japan who proved to be game-changers in politics and had an impact beyond their numbers: “We should not underestimate the significance of the small group of people who have a vision of a just and gentle world… The quality of a culture may be changed when two percent of its people have a new vision.”
Dr. Melba Padilla Maggay is a social anthropologist and author of “Rise Up and Walk, Religion and Culture in Empowering the Poor,” published by Regnum in Oxford, UK.
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