On this Tuesday, hundreds of millions of people will celebrate Christmas across the country and around the world. For many, the holiday is a joyous time: Families gather, music in the air, light-draped trees and lampposts; presents are exchanged; blessings are shared.
But Christmas can also be a hard time for the lonely, the poor and the imprisoned. Each year at this time, I use this column to recall the real meaning of Christmas.
Christmas is literally the mass for Christ, marking the birth of Jesus. He was born under occupation. Joseph and Mary were ordered to go far from home to register with authorities. The innkeeper told Joseph there was no room at the inn. Jesus was born in a stable, lying in a manger, an “at-risk baby.” He was the son of a carpenter.
He was born at a time of great misery and turmoil. Prophets predicted that a new Messiah was coming — a King of Kings — one who would rout the occupiers and free the people. Many expected and hoped for a mighty warrior — like the superheroes of today’s movies — who would mobilize an army to attack Rome’s occupying legions. Fearing the prophecy, the Roman King Herod ordered the “massacre of the innocents,” the slaughter of all boys age two and under in Bethlehem and the nearby region.
Jesus confounded both Herod’s fears and the peoples’ hopes. He raised no army. He was a man of peace, not of war. He gathered disciples, not soldiers. He began his ministry by quoting Isaiah 62:1: “The Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”
We will be judged, he taught us, by how we treat “the least of these,” by how we treat the stranger on the Jericho Road. He called us on to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to care for the sick, to offer aid to the refugee.
It’s an extraordinary story. Jesus was a liberator, but by his words, not by his sword. He converted rather than conquered. He accumulated no worldly wealth. He threw the moneylenders from the temple. During his ministry, he owned no home, no land and had no regular paycheck. His time with us was too brief, and he was crucified for his ministry.
And yet, he succeeded beyond all expectation to transform the world. The Prince of Peace, he taught us that peace is not the absence of violence; it is the presence of justice and righteousness.
These days, the mass for Christ has become a holiday, more secular than sacred. It is a time of sales and discounts, of shopping and Santa. In the midst of this, we should stop a moment and take stock of where we are. The record surely is mixed.
There is good news: Unemployment is down, poverty is down, incomes have slowly begun to rise. We continue to lock up more people than any nation in the world, but our generally dysfunctional Congress just passed a sensible reform that will reduce the number locked up for non-violent offenses or for inability to pay a fine.
Mostly, however, we are astray. The United States wastes lives and literally trillions in wars without end and without apparent purpose, yet when the president abruptly calls for withdrawing some of the troops, he gets criticized from all sides.
Inequality is at record extremes, yet Congress passed a tax cut that went overwhelmingly into the pockets of the already rich. Millions still struggle in this rich country with getting adequate food to eat, yet the administration is intent on cutting support for food stamps that allow the working poor to feed their families.
On our borders, the administration is tearing babies away from their mothers, and keeping so many locked up that we have no facilities to house them. Health care remains unaffordable for too many, yet a federal judge recently threatened the health care of millions by declaring the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional.
Jesus was not a partisan, but his birth was immensely political, both in the expectations of the people and the fears of the occupiers. Instead of turning us on one another, he called us to our highest selves. We should not let the deeper meaning of Christmas be lost in the wrappings.
In Chicago, I will go — as I do every year — to visit prisoners. This year, however, many of the city’s ministers are joining together to raise the funds to liberate those who are locked up simply because they cannot make bail. I urge ministers across the country to take this initiative to their towns, visit the local jails, find out how many non-violent offenders are in jail simply because they cannot make bail and work to liberate as many of them as possible.
That surely will express the real meaning of the Christmas story.
Jesus demonstrated the overwhelming power of faith, hope and charity, the importance of love. He showed that people of conscience can make a difference, even against the most powerful oppressor. He demonstrated the strength of summoning our better angels, rather than rousing our fears or feeding our divisions.
This Christmas, this surely is a message to remember. Merry Christmas, everybody.