Unemployment is rising. Many families are tightening their belts. This year, we're told, may be one of the worst Christmas holidays for retail stores in decades.
But economic distress doesn't put Christmas under wraps. It only highlights the real story. Christmas isn't about cards or toys or running up credit-card bills to buy presents. The real story is about a homeless couple, immigrants ordered by the government to return home to be counted. Those were thankless times too. The innkeeper took one look at that couple and said there was no room at the inn. (Although he might have offered his bed had he known whom Mary was carrying.) Instead the Baby was born in a manger, on a straw floor in a working barn. The stars in the heavens provided the heat.
Roman rule was harsh. Poverty and misery were widespread. Among the poor and the oppressed, there grew a mighty expectation. Prophets said a Messiah would come–a prince of princes, a king of kings–to free the oppressed. He would be a mighty warrior, able to destroy the Roman oppressors, free his people and liberate the poor. The expectation gave hope to the people, and made the establishment nervous.
Wise men from the East saw a mighty star in the sky and knew that the Messiah had come. They traveled far seeking to worship the new king. They met with Herod in Jerusalem on the way, telling him of their mission. Herod, the Bible says, "was disturbed and all Jerusalem with him."
Why was the mighty Herod so fearful? What was the mission of this Messiah? The prophet Isaiah had predicted that a child would be born and the "government will be on his shoulders," and he would "preach good news to the poor …bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives." And as the Gospel of Luke tells us, Jesus, as a young man, read from Isaiah and embraced his charge: The Lord "has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed." No wonder Herod was "disturbed."
Let us not forget the real story amid all the trappings of commercialism. It is too easy to lose the spiritual in the secular, and the politics in the pageantry.
In this powerful nation, we wage war but grow less secure. In the midst of untold wealth, hunger is rising. A record 2 million are in jail, most of them for nonviolent offenses. We have grown fearful and angry at the immigrants in our midst. Greed and worship of wealth have laid our economy low. Over 2 million have lost their jobs this year; hundreds of thousands their homes; millions their life savings. We must go another way.
Here the real story of Christmas has its power. At the time, everyone expected a mighty soldier, a general of generals. But the Messenger was a mighty prince of peace. He never lifted a sword nor carried a shield nor amassed a fortune, yet his gospel overturned an empire and transformed the world. He taught us the power of love and hope and charity.
So in this Christmas season, take a moment to think about the real story. Let us commit to his mission–to raise the poor, to feed the hungry, to free the prisoners, to shelter the stranger on Jericho Road, to bring peace to Bethlehem. Let us commit not our wallets but our hearts. Merry Christmas, everybody.
Reverend Jackson can be contacted by e-mail at JJackson@rainbowpush.org