A Christmas lesson and wish
It was a time of peril and threat. Citizens were called from around the country to travel to the capital and register with authorities. Despite the dangers that travelers faced from bandits, brigands and armed groups, ordinary folk were left to their own devices, regardless of their personal circumstances.
Hovering over them was the oppressive presence of a foreign power, who gave but token authority to the local chief, who promptly abused and took advantage of ordinary citizens.
Even pregnant women, even those clearly about to give birth, were not exempt from the ruler’s edict. And because authorities were uncaring about the welfare of the pilgrims, families were left to seek shelter on their own, even if available facilities were truly limited and the homeless had no choice but to bed down wherever they could find some convenient space.
So it was for a newlywed couple who found no room for them or for their coming child among the overcrowded inns and hostels. Instead, they settled down uncomfortably in a stable filled with farm animals, and almost surely reeking of dung and debris. Astoundingly, this was where the young mother was to deliver her baby, in a setting certainly as unsanitary and unsafe as any setting outdoors, bereft of care or assistance, shivering in the cold and the fear that gripped them.
For the young couple were no ordinary folk. The baby posed a threat to the very authority of the powers-that-be. And if word got out about the infant’s unheralded arrival, it threatened the very existence of the tiny family gathered in the humble manger.
The reality of the threat soon manifested itself, with the arrival of three personages from far away, bearing precious gifts and disturbing news. Local authorities had heard of the baby’s arrival, and what the newborn’s presence on earth meant to the civil and military powers of earthly authorities.
Already, the political leader had called out his troops, ordering them to search and destroy families where a baby had been newly born. They conducted an early version of “Project Tokhang,” knocking on doors and demanding the homeowners’ presence, barging into homes of those slow to respond, and putting to death any boy child unfortunate enough to have been born around the time of the wise men’s visit.
All around them, babies were being put to death, and the young father decided to pack his wife and infant son and flee to a faraway land, while soldiers went on a killing spree. How many grieving families did they encounter as they fled the cruel war on the innocents? How close did the family come to meeting their demise? What was Christmas like for them as they made their way to what they hoped was safety and salvation?
It seems odd to recall that the first Christmas, according to scripture, was, for Joseph, Mary and the Child Jesus, far from the jolly, merry, bountiful feast we celebrate this weekend. Instead, as the Gospel writers recall, it was a season not of celebration but of trepidation, of danger and death, of blood on doorsteps and in the streets. We look back on the first Christmas and choose to remember only the angels serenading the child, the shepherds kneeling in wonderment and awe, the Magi offering precious gifts in homage.
The occasion we remember these days resembles the uneasy, fearful first observance of Christmas. Many innocents have died in the course of the homegrown despot’s paranoia, many children paying the price of being “collateral damage” in a self-inflicted war, while others are gunned down without trial or certainty of guilt, their blood soaking the earth and filling the air with the stench of unquantifiable fear and unexplained dread.
Decades after the child was spirited away from the murderous troops, the grown man would walk the streets of the capital, his blood dripping from his wounds amid the mockery of a complicit public. He would die on a hill, crucified by hate. But in a few years, his followers would spread his message far and wide, conquering the darkness of oppression with the light of mercy and compassion. That is, or should be, our Christmas lesson and wish.
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