(Originally posted January 2005)
January 2, 2005
It is often said at Christmas that Jesus is born into every family and every heart. But these “births” must not make us forget the primordial, massive fact that Jesus was born of Mary among a people that at the time were dominated by the greatest empire of the age. If we forget that fact, the birth of Jesus becomes an abstraction, a symbol, a cipher. Apart from its historical coordinates the event loses its meaning. To the eyes of Christians the incarnation is the irruption of God into human history: an incarnation into littleness and service in the midst of overbearing power exercised by the mighty of this world; an irruption that smells of the stable…
…God is not intimidated by the darkness or by the rejection of God’s own. God’s light is stronger than all the shadows. If we are to dwell in the tent the Son has pitched in our midst, we must enter into our own history here and now, and nourish our hope with the will to life that the poor of our continent are demonstrating. If we do so, we shall experience in our flesh the encounter with the Word who proclaims the kin-dom of life.
Just slightly over one year ago, on the Sunday after Christmas, my dear friend G. called, his voice filled with an exquisite blend of excitement and anxiety. The time had come! After several days of “false starts”, A. was finally, truly, in labor, and their son, our godson, was soon to be born.
This was the day we had been longing for, and during those last few weeks, our own excitement could hardly be contained. The baby presents were bought, supervisors spoken to about any sudden need to leave work early, and we had gotten to the point that I was sitting through movies with the cellphone, set on vibrate, in my hand, just in case. We were ready.
When G. called, they themselves had not been at the hospital very long, but we still flew into a flurry of activity. My cielo rushed back home from downtown, as fast as the Max would take her, and I ran around the house gathering up the books and magazines and snacks and of course the camera, because after all, birth can take a while, and we were preparing for the long wait ahead.
There was no star to guide us to the hospital that day, and a heavy rainstorm made the 205 that much more treacherous. Even so, we made it to the hospital less than an hour after G. had called.
Entering Sunnyside hospital, we watched for signs to take us to the right place. Finally, we made it to labor and delivery, and, rather timidly, stopped at the nurses’ station to ask where the H.'s room was. We were shown the way and told to go on in.
The hall seemed strangely quiet…were there no other babies being born? Was A. having a break from labor? We approached the door to the birthing room, knocked quietly, and a voice invited us in. We opened the door, and slowly stepped inside. The room was hushed, the light, not dim, but soft. G. was standing over A., who was…holding a baby?
In a split second, I thought, “Wait…why are they holding someone else’s baby? What’s going on? It can’t be over already!” And then, as they say in the Bible, my eyes were opened. I looked around the room, saw basins, and instruments, and stains of blood. My ears were opened, and I understood the hush as the reverence that surrounds a miracle. He was here, our baby boy. G-cito, after teasing us for so many days, wasted no time when he finally decided he was ready.
We held G-cito, cradled him and kissed him, welcomed him, sang to him, kissed A. and G., took pictures, witnessed the quiet, awed procession of nurses, grandparents, uncle, and great-grandfather, and helped the new parents settle in to their hospital room for the night. Holding G-cito in my arms, time seemed suspended, and I will not forget the sacred light and energy that filled the birthing room that day.
It is good for us to remember that, at least for a moment, Christ’s birth was something like this: The stable hushed, the baby rocked in his mother’s arms and kissed all over, the reverent procession of shepherds entering with awed whispers, even the animals stunned into silence. He is here! The one we have been waiting for! Could it be?
It’s a lovely tableaux, all Silent Night and angels, shepherds, gentle cows and donkeys, tenderhearted Joseph and Mary meek and mild with a baby so perfect he doesn’t even cry. Can’t you imagine the shepherds, kneeling over the manger, expressing their utter joy and amazement, and marveling over his tiny fingers and toes. He is here! A baby boy! The one we have been waiting for is here! Sacred light and energy fill the room, angels’ songs echo into the night, and time, I am sure, seems suspended.
But time, as it is wont to do, eventually unsuspends itself, the story continues, and we find ourselves here, at Epiphany, with these very odd wise men.
Although there is no Biblical basis for such an idea, tradition holds that there were three of these kings, or magi, or astrologers, or “wise” men. Often, in its telling, their story seems to be a sweet coda at the end of the birth narrative: Jesus’ birth was so important, even foreigners paid attention. They stop, ask Herod for directions, find Jesus, give presents, pay their respects, and go on their merry way. We leave out the “icky bits” because, after all, it’s Christmas, and if we are honest, we are much more comfortable contemplating a peaceful nativity scene.
But the odd and even frightening parts of the story are vital in helping us understand everything we need to know about who this Christ child is, and how – and where -- we should seek him.
I have a suspicion about these wise men, which is that they were not so very wise at all – at least, not at the beginning. As they realized the star was leading them into a village far from royal palaces, I suspect that the wise men stopped to ask for directions, not because they were lost, but because they couldn’t believe where they were going. The wise men, after all, were looking for a king, and where better to find the heir to the throne than the throne room itself?
But the Christ is not to be found on the thrones of imperial power. This is a child born as an outcast, for whom no one can make any room. This is a child born in a barn, which, despite all the sweet carols to the contrary, had to have at least smelled just a little and been crowded with noisy animals. This is a child to whom his mother sang songs of revolution while he was still in the womb. This is a child whose birth caused poor, working-class shepherds to leave their flocks in the middle of the night and go find him – and if you remember the birth story in Luke, you will remember that the shepherds needed no directions, they knew just where to look! This Christ, born as a tiny, helpless, homeless baby, begging to be loved and cradled and kissed, this is the Christ who shall live to save an oppressed and violated people.
The idea of such a Christ, a saviour born in poverty and nurtured in revolution, is such a threat to the power structure, that Herod schemes for a way to rid himself of this child; and when his first scheme fails, thanks to the magi finally wizening up, Herod sends his soldiers to kill, to massacre. The child becomes a refugee, twice outcast in his short little life.
As unhappy as the ending may be, I think the story of the magi, following the star but not always trusting it, foolishly invoking Herod’s rage, and finally becoming wise by allowing God to surprise them with a poor and humble child, this story is more than a sweet epilogue tacked on to the end of the birth narrative. This story is the revolutionary essence of the gospel itself, and it’s ramifications are more than relevant today. For the magi may have been seeking a king, but they found the Christ, and it is that Christ whom we must still seek, and seek wisely, today.
As was true for the magi, so too shall we find Christ among the poor, the outcast, the oppressed. Gustavo Gutierrez reminds us that we shall find Christ not on the throne of imperial power, but with those whom the throne crushes. We shall find Christ among the refugees, the farm workers, the war survivors, the addicted, the homeless. We shall find Christ among ourselves, in all the ways that we find ourselves outcast. We shall find Christ among those who cry out for safety, for justice, for peace, for freedom, for love.
We shall even, if we look very carefully, find Christ in the throne room, for every time truth is spoken to power, every time peace is chosen rather than violence, every time justice is done rather than vengeance, every time compassion, true compassion, not the so-called “compassion” which spends obscene amounts of money on its own coronation while grudgingly sending a pittance to those whose entire lives have been washed away, but true compassion with unceasing love at its core, every time compassion is practiced rather than apathy or selfishness, there is Christ, struggling to be born, begging to be cradled and kissed and loved into fullness.
We are overwhelmed with joy when we find Christ. We sing, as Isaiah does, of new life, of relationships healed, of nations acting justly, and our hearts, as he says, thrill and rejoice.
Nonetheless, we must not forget what the magi learn: Whenever and wherever we seek Christ, when we find him…or her…or it…when we lift up the oppressed, when we choose peace, and justice, and compassion, then the powers feel threatened. And until that time when they themselves find Christ, they will retaliate, as they did against Jesus, and still do today.
Even so, we must still keep seeking.
There is a Christmas carol from Peru that includes these lines:
To bring liberty, to break our chains, Christ is born.
To take away oppression, to erase injustice, Christ is born.
To overcome poverty, to the poor who suffer, Christ is born.
To bring us light, to this earth that bleeds, Christ is born.
To bring us love, to overcome selfishness, Christ is born.
To this sleeping world, to overturn our lives, Christ is born.
In each one who is free,
In each people who cry out,
For equality among all,
In each one who struggles,
In the stretching out of our hands,
In each one who hopes,
Christ is born.
Every day, Christ is born.
Every day, Christ is born.
We are rarely blessed to have a star guide our way. But if we seek wisely, we shall find Christ, in the most surprising places, struggling to be born, in us and in the world..
And when you find Christ, be sure to pick him up, cradle her, rejoice exceedingly with great joy at the perfect little fingers and toes, and love it into all its fullness.