Message of Christmas is the Liberation of the Oppressed
by Fr. Leopold Ratnasekera, OMI., Ph.D., Th.D.
Christmas is by now a Christian annual festival well known to the world. Indeed at Christmas the whole world takes on a festive air. However, in a highly secular culture such as today, many unfortunately tend to sideline the more profound message and meaning of Christmas. Christmas stands for the birth of Jesus Christ. He is the very incarnation of God, God walking this earth. The Bible says that "God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him, may not perish but may have eternal life" (John 3:16).
In fact, further it is stated by Christ himself that: "I came that they may have life and have it more abundantly" (John 10:10). When Jesus appeared for the first time in public in his village synagogue of Nazareth, he opened the Jewish Scriptures and quoting a very ancient prophet declared: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour" (Lk 4:18-19). When he declared that today this prophecy is being fulfilled in your sight, the listeners were stupefied and their eyes rested with awe upon this young man from Nazareth, the son of Mary. St. Paul who was a great protagonist of early Christianity and staunchly preaching Christ against all odds declares clearly to the first believers of the city of Corinth that: "Though He was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich" ( 2 Cor 8:9).
Christmas is therefore a festival time for the poor to rejoice and be glad. It is their day of celebration. For, at Christmas the poor are being exalted and given pride of place and the highest consideration. The birth-story of Jesus deliberately sets the scenes of his birth in humble surroundings and under very trying and difficult circumstances. Jesus Christ was not born in the comfort of a home. He was born according to the Gospel story in a cold midnight in the backyard of an inn where the cattle lodged and rested for the night. The new born infant was placed not in a cushioned cot, but in a manger that was meant to hold the hay, the food of the cattle. He was wrapped up not in warm linen but in swaddling clothes just to keep the cold off his tiny frame. The first blessed ones to whom the news came of the birth of the Messiah were the shepherds of low caste.
Young Jesus himself led a poor and a simple life. He was an itinerant preacher going in simple sandles from village to village, covering on foot long distances throughout the length and breath of what is Palestine today and being ministered unto by others. Luke and Matthew, the Gospel writers recall the words of Jesus when he said: "Foxes have holes and the birds of the air nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head" (Lk 9:58, Matt. 8:20). When his disciples had no way of paying the tax money, Jesus had to do the needful by providing the four-drachma coin from the belly of a fish taken out from the lake nearby. Such was his poverty and that of his disciples. He has overturned in fact the whole idea of the value of mammon by exalting the generosity of the widow who put in two small copper coins into the treasury than the hundreds of drachmas that were thrown in there by the affluent and the rich (Lk 21:1-4). The widow had given her all but no so the rich. In the moving parable of the rich man and Lazarus lying in sores at his door-steps and yearning to fill himself with the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s sumptuous table, Jesus revolutionises the social status of the two and describes the final fate of the rich man and the exaltation of Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31). In the authoritative teaching of the Sermon on the Mount that fascinates anyone who reads it, priority of place is given clearly to the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.
This means that the Kingdom of God will be realized the day the rich decide to share with the poor. One can raise the question whether, in the highly complicated area of international economics this sharing is taking place at all! It is still the kingdom of the Mammon, the rule of money with everything, even the dignity of a person and the value of his labor are measured in terms of commodity produced and profit accrued. There is the commoditisation of human persons and belittling the dignity of human work and labor. God always sides with the poor and the oppressed in this matter of economic status. Has the Kingdom come with a massive part of the inhabited earth overburdened by its third-world population that is poor. The third-world was once known as the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century. Doesn’t the tragedy continue to our day, even in this new century. The first decade of this new millennium has many heart-rending stories of the poor who have been driven to dire straits and untold sufferings, like the boat-people, those forced to flee their countries because of war and terrorism and those stranded in the high seas while trying to migrate illegally into affluent countries. The eight millennium goals advocated by the United Nations are intended to create interest in people to lend their hand to solve this colossal problem of the alleviation of world-poverty and of empowerment of the poor.
The same paradoxical logic is written into all the rest of the beatitudes. The meek will inherit the earth, for they are people who have extra space in their lives for others unlike those who crave for property, goods and inheritance and desire to grab even that which is not legitimately theirs. So is the case with those who mourn, for their tears will turn into joy when the evil and injustice over which they are saddened will one day disappear and society will be transformed into a benevolent fraternity of sharing of goods and communion of persons. The Beatitudes also highlight the blessing inherited by those who suffer persecution, trial and suffering for the sake of justice, for when God’s Rule prevails in the final phase of world history, a world system of justice will emerge. We can include in this category all those who suffer under political oppression when their voices are silenced and their imprisonment is rather politically motivated. This is a beatitude that is very relevant to many situations that we see in some countries. Then come the peace-makers who are blessed because they will prevent oppression from enslaving people in many ways and thus there will be what St. Augustine once said: "Tranquility in order" which precisely in his mind is peace, a state of personal and social transparency.
Jesus Christ is a symbol of a paradox: he who came to enrich the poor, himself became a poor man. It was a clear case of voluntary poverty. He who came to liberate the prisoner, was himself made prisoner by the civil and religious authority in the course of his passion. All these were a result of social oppression to which Jesus was subjected. This shows that unless the so-called liberators do not identify with the state of the oppressed, the silenced and the helpless, no freedom will be won in their favour. Jesus thus was able to be in solidarity with those who were marginalized in society like the women and children as shown in the case where he defended the helpless woman caught in adultery(John 8: 1-11) and won the victory over the conspiracy that the accusers have laid to trap him.
The accusers ultimately were shown to be the offenders and guilty of patent injustice for there was no one among them who would be without sin or guilt and who could in all honesty raise his hand to cast the first stone! It is the same with the blessing of children and his reference that anyone guilty of scandalising little ones deserve severe punishment. In the Jewish society women and children were stateless. Jesus even in the last moments on the cross of his death did not hesitate to forgive the repentant thief and promise him the joy of paradise in his company as the Son of God.
The Christian Church stands for the liberation of the oppressed. This oppression is not merely in political sphere but also in the physical, personal, social and institutional spheres. She denounces injustices ingrained in institutions and social structures since these dehumanize human persons. Christianity gives pride of place to the dignity of human persons and his fundamental rights and makes the human person the measure of all things. The perennially hundred-year old social doctrine of the Church that began with Pope Leo XIII’s social encyclical "Rerum Novarum" on capital and labor (May 1891)and just ended with the social encyclical "Charity in Truth" on integral human development in charity and truth (June 2009) of the present Pope Benedict XVI bear ample testimony to the continuous social concern of the Church and her leaders.
This trend was given a great impetus in the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church (1962-1965) which dealt with the task the Church has to perform in the world. The opening poignant words of the relevant document begins by saying that "the joys and hopes of the world are also those of the Church" ie. Christian community that lives in the world. The Church is not an esoteric or Gnostic religious community but one incarnated in the heart of world society and so neither are the aspirations of mankind nor anything genuinely human appear strange to her. The social involvement of the church is not just philanthropy or an act of compassion and mercy but flows from her very essence of being Church – God’s people.
This grand involvement of Christianity with the world, its joys, aspirations and hopes is verily based on the Mystery of Incarnation of God that is celebrated during Christmas. God became man and took upon himself human nature and its woes, in order to heal it and make human beings whole and fulfilled. In the mystery of the man Jesus Christ, is the riddle of man solved. Incarnation inspires and drives Christianity to get involved with the processes of liberation in the world. But this liberation is without violence that is physical or external. The only violence she exercises is the tender and silent appeal to the consciences and the reason of man.
The greatest oppression that enslaves people of today is the "poisoning of thought" as Pope Benedict XVI has said in his most recent book "The Light of the World" (November 2010), which breeds wrong perspectives in the way approach reality. Thus reason can be darkened and our actions meander the wrong way. Hence, Christmas is good news to the poor and the oppressed. It is the festival of the poor and those who have lost their freedom and keep yearning for it. It is thus good for those who are affluent to think, care and share with the poor during this festive season of Christmas.
The spirit of Christ who gave all for our sake in complete self-giving will inspire all of us to greater generosity during the season of Christmas that challenges oppressors and the unjust to conversion of heart. To free the oppressors from their oppressive mind-set is the first step to the liberation of all who are oppressed.
(Fr. Leopold Ratnasekera,OMI., Ph.D., Th.D. is Superior, Oblate Scholasticate in Ampitiya, Kandy and Former Asst. Secretary General of the Bishops’ Conference)