‘Good News for the Despised’ – By John Smith, published 24/12/1994 as a saturday reflection (regular weekend column) for the Melbourne Age Newspaper, rewritten & adapted to 2011.
WESTERNISED Christmas cards, featuring idealised pastoral scenes, obscure just how disturbing the true message of Christmas is. Jesus’ family, and the heralds of his coming, were mostly on the margins of society, if not actually outcasts. Shepherds, for example, had an image much akin to European gypsies. They were not owners of prosperous sheep stations, but hired hands working for a pittance, sometimes as endentured labour. Hence Jesus in adult life referred himself as a good shepherd to the extend that he would die to protect the sheep. Hirelings would be fools to die for sheep in which they had no investment. Shepherds were “persona non grata,” deemed unsuitable to give evidence in court. Goods in their possession were assumed to be stolen. Yet the Gospel story bypasses their respectable antagonists, bringing Glory to God and Peace on Earth firstly to despised shepherds.
The traditional scene of the three kings from the East masks some disturbing elements in the real account for those whose faith rests upon strict adherence to dogma’s details rather than the sweet sound of amazing grace and universal love. The great prophets of Israel, such as Isaiah, railed upon every occultic activity, specifically targeting astrologers, deriding their claims at foretelling, and warning of divine judgement upon those who took their predictions seriously. The Magi story gives rise to images of Shirley MacLaine in conflict with a US southern states fundamentalist. Love reigned supreme over dogma as the ancient “New Age” astrologer gentiles were led to Jesus through the only way they knew – the observance of the stars.
No serious biblical scholar would suggest the story validates astrology, but of one thing we can be sure in His birth, as consistently as in His life and death, the Christ of the Christmas story was to cross all barriers of sex, race, status, power and convention to announce among other things that the value of every life is infinitely greater than the tyranny of purist theology.
But Jesus didn’t simply bring a message of ‘goodwill towards all people’. In the Gospel narratives, even as a babe, Jesus’ very presence was a confrontation to the totalitarian aspirations of Herod. The consequent wave of infanticide was to plunge Jesus and his parents in to fugitive refugee status. With today’s massive refugee camps proliferating worldwide in consequence of political totalitarianism and barbarism, we should give time this Christmas to the fact that Christ as an infant was a refugee. He possibly became a desert “boat person”, travelling to Egypt by camel… the “ship of the desert”. It is a good thing Egypt didn’t have Australia’s refugee policy.
His beginning, and his ending in public execution, was a confrontation to much we justify in our materialistic culture. Maybe Jesus addressed us via east Timor, Bosnia, Rwanda decades ago, and continues to disturb us in the plight of Afghanistan, and the plight of our own Aboriginal people, our abused children, and our perhaps permanently locked-in underclass today. The real Christmas story is a far cry from the humble beginnings of the Jesus story. I don’t decry generosity but somehow the images are just out of sync with the story. If the world followed his example there would be no poor and destitute and the need for welfare agencies to plead for support for the poor against the backdrop of adverts for ridiculous luxury items presented as normal for any generous parent or lover. It is significant that it appears the early Christian community “had no poverty among them” as those with extensive property sold land to provide for those in need. Ther’s a radical way to deal with homelessness…
Mind you, Christmas cannot be simply politicised or captured by some socialist ideology either. The story of Jesus challenges the widest range of individuals to personal transformation, gratitude, forgiveness and peace. It is a challenge, not to short-lived euphoria and sentimentality, but to a profound spiritual and social conversion from our greed, our violence, our false values and our shattered relationships. It is a call to become personal friends with Jesus and become transformed by his presence, his power and his message. Coming to that can be a long journey. Christmas may be a good time to start the “road less travelled”, to reflect, to realign our lives and be part of good will to all men & women. It could be the start of that journey for ourselves & our children. Here’s to a Happy Christmas and a wonderfully different new year.