The light at midnight
By P N BENJAMIN
IT was somewhere in the neighbourhood of the present-day Bethlehem that Christ's birth took place nearly 2000 years ago. In the exposition and portrayal of it, literally billions of words, oceans of paint, acres of canvas, mountains of stone and marble have been expended, not to mention, in recent times, miles of film. Is there, then, anything left to say? Yes, there is. Christ and his story continue to attract the minds and imaginations of many.
The story of the birth of Christ begins with a revelation to a peasant girl that she would be the Saviour of the world. She would conceive by the Holy Spirit and give birth to the Son of God. She was so overpowered by the message that she breaks into poetic utterance: the greatest of all songs of motherhood.
"My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath/ rejoiced in my God my Saviour.../ For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden/ For, behold, from henceforth all/ generations shall call me blessed./ For he that is mighty hath magnified me,/ and holy is his name.../ He hath showed strength with his arms/ He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts/ He hath put down the mighty from their seats/ And exalted them of low degree/ He hath filled the hungry with good things/ And the rich, he hath sent empty away." This song of Mary is called the Magnificat. Mary sees a vision of a new order of things where the weak and the poor will throw off their shackles. It is a song of liberation for man as well as for woman.
The song of Mary reflects the teaching of the prophets of the Old Testament. These prophets denounced the oppressors of the people, those who would sell the needy for a pair of shoes. They were constantly exhorting the people "to untie the knots of the yoke, and loose the fetters of justice, to set free those who have been crushed". Mary belonged to this oppressed section of the people.
Joseph, a poor carpenter from Nazareth, who married Mary, likewise understood that the child to be born to her had a special destiny in the world. Every son of every mother is a son of God, but Mary knew that her son was to have a unique relationship with God and a unique role to play in the lives of men. It was to Mary and Joseph that Christ was born in a stable, no other more suitable accommodation being available, or within the means of Mary and Joseph. The essential point about Christ's birth is that it was so poor and so humble. The Son of God was born into the world not as a prince but as a pauper. God was revealed to humankind not in the guise of power or wealth or physical beauty, but of weakness, obscurity and humility.
Each generation of Christians inevitably seeks to fashion its own Christ, from the austere figures carved in wood in the early Middle Ages, through the ebullient Renaissance Christs to the weird efforts of our time to devise a Hipster saviour. Yet, behind all this there is a real man: born, growing up, reaching maturity like other men, turning his mind to what life means rather than to what it provides; trudging through this self-same dust, and sheltering from this self-same sun; lying down at night to sleep and rising in the morning to live another day.
Christ's mission on earth reached far beyond considerations of national independence or servitude — to the roots of power itself and the fearful passion men have to dominate other men. He very humanly chose to begin his ministry in Nazareth where he was known and had grown up. Therefore, in the synagogue, he chose to read the splendid passage found in the Old Testament in which the Prophet Isaiah proclaims: "The spirit of the Lord is upon me. Because he hath annointed me to preach the gospel, to the poor: He hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering sight to the blind. To set at liberty them that are bruised. To preach the acceptable year of the Lord."
All would have been well if Christ had just left matters there. Nothing pleases the congregation more, whether it is in a synagogue, church, temple or mosque, than to be told about preaching deliverance to captives, healing the brokenhearted etc., always being provided nothing is expected of them. But that was not to be.
Much of Christ's life appears to have been devoted to denouncing the Pharisees, the priests.. They were the fundamentalists of his time, the ultra-conservatives who spent their lives enforcing on the public their version of the "word of God", as well as their special regulations of conduct. Jesus was determined to drive puritanism and arid conformity out of men's hearts and to make them learn the habit of love.
Christ turned the world's accepted standards upside down. He affirmed the priority of justice over religion. He criticised the religion of law and priesthood and opposed the commercialisation of sacrifices and the observance of Sabbath. That God manifests himself in human mercy is the most important Christian idea. God does not reside in human-made temples. His presence is in works of human mercy.
The deity of Christ is hidden in his humanity. We understand Christ's suffering as the suffering of God. But his life was the life of a real man. The religion of the Cross seems to be capable of being assimilated into other religions. Thus in all areas of life, Christ enters. Religion, ideology, revolutionary instinct, God, son, man, painting, literature and time become the dwelling of the Saviour and testimony to his words. Therefore, the image of Christ as the one who has made the ends of the earth his own is right.
The voice of Christmas cries in the wilderness. It is not a call for violent revolution for violent revolutions always end hi tyranny of one kind or another. Christmas calls for a change of heart, a turning away from oneself to one's neighbour, and therefore to God. Christmas reminds us that in the creative relationship there is God, man and always his neighbour — only in such a co-operative partnership can we hope for a restructuring of the social fabric which is permanent.