December 20, 2016
On Monday, the Electoral College met to cast their ballots for the new president after a bitterly contested election in a deeply polarized nation. On Sunday, the vast majority of Americans will celebrate Christmas, literally the mass of Christ, marking the birth of Jesus.
Christmas is not simply a day for exchanging presents and cards. It is not simply a holiday; it is a holy day. Each year, I use this column to remind us of the real meaning of Christmas.
Jesus was born under occupation to a couple ordered to go far from home to register with authorities. The innkeeper told Joseph that there was no room at the inn. Jesus was born in a stable, lying in a manger, an “at-risk baby.”
He came at a time of great expectation among the poor and the oppressed. Prophets had predicted that a mighty Messiah would be born — a king of kings — to defeat the occupiers and free the people. They expected a powerful warrior, one who would lead them against Rome’s legions. But Jesus rallied no army. Jesus was a liberator, but He was a Prince of Peace. He gathered disciples, not soldiers. He converted rather than conquered. He accumulated no worldly wealth. He threw the moneylenders from the temple.
We cannot speak of Jesus in the past tense. He is the Prince of Peace today. Peace, He showed us, is not the absence of noise; it is the presence of justice and righteousness.
We will be judged, He told us, by how we treat “the least of these,” by how we treat the stranger on the Jericho Road. He called on us to serve the poor, to care for the sick, to reach out to the refugee.
Now, of course, Christmas has become a holiday, more secular than sacred. Too many of us stretch our budgets not to lift those in need but to buy baubles for families and friends. Christmas often means more debt until Easter. It has become a marketing scheme, a time of malls and sales, of come-ons and discounts. But we should not allow Jesus the Christ, the redeemer, the emancipator to be displaced by Santa the Claus, and more debt and unaffordable things.
Let us use this holy day to reassess where we are. We are spending trillions in wars without end. Inequality has reached extremes not witnessed since the eve of the Great Depression. We continue to lock up more people than any nation in the world. On an average day, 27 people die from gun violence in the United States; in Canada and other western nations, the average is fewer than five per day.
The good news is that since last year, unemployment is down, poverty is down and incomes have begun to rise. But we’ve lost ground this century, with more people and more children in poverty than in 2000. There are 45 million Americans living in poverty, a number that would be far worse without Social Security (which lifts 26.5 million out of poverty), refundable income tax credits and SNAP, or food stamps. Last year, the life expectancy of Americans began to decline.
The rich, on the other hand, have more money and pocket a greater percentage of the nation’s income than ever. So why would an incoming administration focus on more tax cuts for the wealthy and more cuts in basic services for the poor and working people?
You don’t need to be a Christian to understand the relevance of the real Christmas story today. Jesus taught us the overwhelming power of faith, hope and charity, the importance of love. He taught us that people of conscience can make a difference, even against the most powerful oppressor. He showed leaders the power of summoning our better angels, rather than rousing our fears or our divisions. This Christmas, this surely is a message to remember. Merry Christmas, everybody.
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