Christmas can be and often is a very difficult time not only for the poor but for those that by the standards of the majority of the world are rich indeed. It is not the meaning of Christmas or the bible story of Christmas that makes it so, but rather piles of dubious expectations that have been placed upon it, especially by western culture. The cultural lore that has made Santa Claus or his equivalent into a representative of materialism makes it hard for those who cannot attain the levels of giving and getting that are promoted by the commercial world. The deep and growing divisions between the haves and have nots are abundantly clear at Christmas in many places of the world. The reality is, however, that the commercialism in the West that undermines the true celebration of the birth of God’s gift of hope to the world also deadens our sense of connection to the majority of God’s children who live each day in poverty. Christmas calls us to reflect upon our relationship to poverty at many levels. Failure to do so distorts our souls and weakens our spirits.
The birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem is remembered because of who Jesus was, what he taught, how he lived, died, and was raised. Jesus himself probably did not grow up in abject poverty, but he certainly heard the cry of the poor throughout his ministry. He saw the results of the Roman occupation and the ways injustice and unabated power create conditions of poverty and its resulting suffering, humiliation, and hopelessness. His mission to the impoverished proclaimed by both word and deed that God stands with the poor and the oppressed against the evils of tyranny, inequity, oppression and greed. Christian, Hebrew, and Muslim scriptures convey the same message. If we neglect the poor and oppressed, if we do not share our wealth, if we turn away from the lost, the least, and the last, we have not truly heard the word of God. It is not just the condition of the poor that is at issue. It is also the condition of our own souls.
The celebration of Christmas at its best is the celebration of hope. There is hope for the poor. There is hope for justice. There is hope for peace. There is hope because Jesus was born as the Word: “The Word was made flesh and dwells among us.” God reached down into human history and declared that nothing, not angels or powers or things past or things to come, nor any creature can separate us from the love of God that was born in Bethlehem as the
embodiment of hope. So let us sort through the piles of crass materialism that contemporary Christmas too often offers, through the piles of meaningless gestures of the holidays, through the piles of denial of the dismal poverty that infects our planet, seeking once again the birth of hope. May our gift giving always include those who live in want. But even more may we give the gift of ourselves to those institutions and structures that seek to address the poverty of Gaza and the West Bank, the poverty of the vast majority of humanity, not with handouts but with political and economic action. Let us hold up the reality of life for our impoverished sisters and brothers to those whose policies create their misery. Let us hold fast to the message of the birth of Jesus which always points to the realm of God in which there are no poor, where justice reigns, and where peace is not a dream but a reality. And on Christmas Eve and whenever
we give and receive gifts, let us give thanks for the ever-present Christmas.
by Robert W. Tobin