The Real Real Meaning

Jesus Wasn’t Born Rich. Think About It.

He was born in a barn to penniless parents who were part of a people under occupation. Get it? So why do so many of us not get it?

Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

I’m against the War on Christmas. No not that one! Wishing someone “Happy Holidays” doesn’t rob Christmas of its meaning—after all, being sensitive to others’ religious beliefs ought to be the attitude of every Christian. And not the one that says we have over-commercialized Christmas—after all, there’s nothing wrong with a time of year when we purchase thoughtful gifts for those we love.

No, the “war on Christmas” I’m opposed to is the one being mindlessly waged by Christians who have so watered down the Christmas story into a sentimentalized version of itself that it denies the radical message of this God event.

Jesus was born into oppression. Joseph and Mary, and the Jewish community of which they were a part, were living under an occupation by a cruel and powerful regime. They lived in a backwater small town and didn’t have two denarii to rub together. Joseph couldn’t afford any sort of comfortable place to lodge with his about-to-deliver pregnant wife (who had become pregnant, let us not forget, as an unwed teenage girl).

Imagine his panic when she went into labor in a barn! Neither Mary nor Joseph had the usual experienced midwives around to guide them through this frightening experience for first-time parents. No one to tell her when to push. Nothing much to use in cleaning up the baby and his mother after the birth, no place to dispose of the placenta. And it’s cold in Bethlehem in winter. Just two young kids experiencing the panic, pain, and then the miracle, of new birth.

It is now impossible to imagine the radical nature of the claim of Christianity: that God—Almighty God—would choose the squalor of a barn and the oppressed community of the Jews into which to be born into humankind. In the ancient world, no god worth his weight would choose anything but grandeur and wealth for his surroundings, which had to be proper for any “king.”

So why did the God of the Hebrew people choose such a scandalous setting for becoming human? Because if God meant to be “one of us,” it would have to be to the least of us, the most troubled and despised, the most looked down upon—in order to demonstrate God’s own empathy with the poor, marginalized, and oppressed, and to bring them hope. The rest of Jesus’s life would focus on these people considered the last, the lost, and the least.

Before his first birthday, Jesus and his family would find themselves refugees, fleeing to Egypt to escape the violence of their homeland. Yes, Jesus himself was an undocumented child at the border of another country, seeking safety and refuge. Hmmm. Sound familiar?

Let’s remember that the “good news” of Jesus’s life didn’t sound like good news to everyone. Not to those in power, not to the cruel and inhumane, not to the wealthy. But it was good news to the poor, the diseased, the downtrodden and scorned, and all the “little” people. For those of us who are well off, comfortable, educated, white, and privileged, we would do well to ask whether this little baby’s birth is something we really want to celebrate.

Perhaps it was Hallmark who got us off track with Christmas by abbreviating the holiday greeting to “Peace on earth, good will toward men [all].” The Bible verse that tells us the angels’ proclamation to the shepherds (Luke 2: 14) actually reads, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” Certainly, “Good will toward all” sells more Christmas cards, but that’s not what the angels said. Before we mindlessly celebrate this watered down Jesus, we might want to ask if we ourselves are among those whom God favors.

God loves all of God’s children. Full stop. But God’s favor rests first and foremost on the poor, the weak, the defenseless, the lonely, and the despised—because above all else, God is compassionate and has a heart that goes out to the afflicted, abused, and vulnerable. The entirety of the “Jesus event” is to proclaim this good news. Or as the Jewish prophet foretold (and Jesus repeated), “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because The Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Isaiah 61: 1-2)

No mention here of God’s congratulating those who did well in the stock market this year. No awards for defeating a bill to raise the minimum wage. No cheers for those who push and vote against taking climate change seriously. No approving remarks for the growing gap between rich and poor. No congratulations for those who were born with a silver spoon in their mouths and then blame the poor for being poor.

The Christmas story is meant to bring comfort to those who are oppressed: young unarmed black men in Ferguson and Cleveland and all over America, Palestinians who are captive in their own homeland, LGBT people in Uganda, women who suffer genital mutilation, undocumented children on our border, abused women and children, incarcerated people who languish forgotten in for-profit prisons in America, the poor everywhere. But this same Christmas story and message should be unsettling, even disturbing, to those of us who are well off. It is a revolutionary story, which threatens to upend the world as we know it.

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The over-simplification of Christmas into a sentimental celebration of family and feel-good-religion robs it of its radical, transforming power. The good news for the oppressed—those on whom God’s favor rests—can become our good news as well, if we join in God’s efforts to proclaim that good news and back it up with action. If we indeed join God in binding up the brokenhearted, freeing those in prisons of all kinds, and setting free those who are oppressed, then we too will be among those on whom God’s favor rests. And then we can celebrate the real Christmas message. Otherwise, we will be but celebrating an empty holiday, missing its true meaning altogether.

Merry Christmas—if you dare!

Rev. V. Gene Robinson is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, in Washington, D.C., and the retired Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire. Follow him on Twitter @BishopGRobinson