EDante - 25 December 2014
The Christmas mass at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) hasn’t changed much since we arrived here 25 years ago. Father Joe was there; the community was packed with colorful attire; and the altar in front was well decorated and lighted. The stories and liturgy were nothing new. As always, Father Joe began with a touching narrative of how many years had passed from important biblical and historical events to the birth of Jesus. It is called the Christmas Martyrology (also known as the Christmas Proclamation):
“In several thousand years after the flood, when God made the rainbow shine forth as a sign of the covenant. Twenty-one centuries from the time of Abraham and Sarah; thirteen centuries after Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt. Eleven hundred years from the time of Ruth and the Judges; one thousand years from the anointing of David as king; in the sixty-fifth week according to the prophecy of Daniel. In the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad; the seven hundred and fifty-second year from the foundation of the city of Rome. The forty-second year of the reign of Augustus; the whole world being at peace, Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to sanctify the world by his most merciful coming, being conceived by the Holy Spirit, and nine months having passed since his conception, was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary. Today is the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.”
I found the above timeline very powerful in seeing Christmas as a real event in history, and not just a story of faith. It locates the birth of Christ in a concrete time period and place. Like any human being, Jesus was born in a specific time and place. The time of His birth is a turning point in history. Since then, time has been measured as either before His coming, which is called BC, and after it, or AD. Anybody following the Gregorian calendar has their time of birth attached to the birth of Jesus. Thus, my year of birth in 1965 signifies that 1,965 have already passed since the time of Christ. This is a strong reminder of the significance of Christmas in our life.
The place of birth is also of interest. It is a small town called Bethlehem which still exists under the same name. The bible tells that the place of birth was pre-determined and pre-announced: “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet (Matthew 2:5)”. Why Bethlehem? It was the hometown of king David whom God promised that the savior be born from among his descendants and that this savior’s Kingdom will last forever. In Hebrew, the word Bethlehem means “House of Bread”. Interestingly, Jesus presents himself as the bread of life: “I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst (John 6:35)”. This bread as we know is the word of God which is food for the soul. Jesus stressed this point: “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4).’”
At the time of Jesus, Bethlehem was the smallest town of Judah. It was under the occupation of the Roman Empire whose emperor was the mighty Caesar. Upon his order, a census was administered requiring all inhabitants to register in their place of origin. Joseph and Mary were among the crowd of people who travelled to Bethlehem to enroll. The narrow road leading to Bethlehem was very crowded. Little donkeys, loaded with goods and people, were going towards the town. Other people were travelling on foot fast because it was cold. Joseph and Mary travelled by donkey from Nazareth. A long and tiring journey especially during the cold season and for a pregnant woman. Upon their arrival, they looked for a room to stay but could not find one. Joseph implored to some of the travelers to give Mary, who was about to give birth, a place to stay for the night. He begged them to have mercy. The fact that they came from Galilee did not help since Galileans were discriminated at that time. Upon the advice of some shepherds they met on the road, they went towards the country and found a stable, which was used by merchants to keep their animals. This damp and cold stable became the birth place of Jesus and a symbol of God’s infinite humility.
Today, Bethlehem is far remote from its past glory. It is again a besieged town surrounded from three sides by a 25 foot high concrete wall. It has a population of about 22,000, of which 18 per cent are Christians. In and around Bethlehem there are some 32 physical barriers to Palestinian movement erected by Israel, including checkpoints, roadblocks, dirt mounds, and gates. In June 2012, the Church of the Nativity, where Christians believe Jesus was born, was named by UNESCO as an endangered heritage site. Reverend Dr. Mitri Raheb, a pastor of the Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, said that “if Jesus were to be born in Bethlehem today, he would not be born in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph would not be allowed to enter from the Israeli checkpoint, and so too the Magi. The shepherds would be stuck inside the walls, unable to leave their little town. Jesus might have been born at the checkpoint like so many Palestinian children while having the Magi and shepherds on both sides of the wall.”
As we reflect upon the time and place of the birth of Jesus, we can’t help but marvel at the significance of the event. Christmas is the fulfillment of the numerous acts of God and his people from the time of creation. It is the culmination of centuries of expectations and waiting for the promised savior. Mighty prophets of old spoke oracles after oracles about the coming of the Messiah. What exactly happened at Christmas? It was when God decided to be amongst men on earth, and no longer a remote God in heaven. Suddenly, men no longer need to look at heaven to worship God, but simply look at the people around him to perceive Him. It was when God made heaven here on earth. It was when God became accessible and visible to men. It was when God opened the gate of Heaven for men to enter. John the apostle summed it up nicely: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him (John 3:16-17)”.
Christmas is a great act of God towards man. Using the words of Mother Mary, Jesus’ birth was “…infinitely simple and infinitely great,” and “the greatest thing on the earth, concealed under very ordinary appearances.” Christmas, regardless of what we do, is very special. Please enjoy your holidays, but also stop, listen and reflect on the story of Jesus’ birth and the significance of the event.