The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has made us deeply aware of our connection as a common humanity across the world in a way in which, perhaps, no other experience has done. It has made us aware of the fact that if the people of every nation do not have access to vaccines, then no nation is safe, and in so doing, has cut across many of the commercial principles which have governed global relations through patents and other regulations which have placed small and developing nations at risk and in a state of underdevelopment and vulnerability.
Another significant development which the pandemic has exposed is the way in which governance across nations determines the movement of people. It is a reality which has been used with impunity by rulers and nations with devastating consequences for millions of people, leading today to massive populations of displaced persons, refugees, and migrants. The introduction of travel bans against certain nations and their peoples, and the closure of national borders have left some citizens stranded outside of their native land, and others, within their own nation, confined to their homes by curfews and lockdowns.
It is in a context in which there is a decree regarding the movement of a colonized people that we see the birth of Jesus as recorded by St. Luke in his second chapter being played out. The Emperor Augustus has decreed that a census is to be taken and citizens must move at his dictate.
It is against that background that the light shines on a young peasant woman and her carpenter husband who have no standing or claim to fame. They encounter a world in which there is no space for them that would allow them the opportunity to affirm their dignity and that of the child to be born. Today, there are countless children being born without citizenship as their parents are among the displaced or refugees of the world. How much more dehumanizing could the circumstance be when one is relegated to the space among the animals?
And even as we may squirm at the thought, we must with shame acknowledge the number of occasions on which our own news media have carried stories of citizens who have been relegated to life in a chicken coop. It is regrettable that it is only at this point that there is some outpouring of concern across the society and something is done about the situation.
God’s Life-transforming Power
And yet, in the midst of those whose power negatively impacts persons of lowly estate, there is another power at work creating a different kind of life-transforming experience.
So it was with the shepherds tending their sheep at night and sleeping with them in the fields. By virtue of their means of livelihood, these shepherds were not able to observe their faith with all of the strictures with which the religious leaders and hierarchy had surrounded it, and so they were regarded among those who were low on the religious totem pole.
It is into the world of these men that the divine breaks in through the presence of the messenger of God – an angel. Clearly, the men are startled, as they were in the darkness, perhaps half asleep when there is this blinding light and this unsettling presence in their midst. The text expresses it well in saying that they were terrified. It may be that the shepherds are now aware that they are experiencing something which signifies the divine presence, and this kind of experience is not something which they would associate with people like themselves. It must be for the religious leaders or people who can be close to the Temple or the synagogues, but certainly not them.
The angel takes the experience to another level with an announcement, not another decree by the powerful authorities of the state, but from God – “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people”. What could possibly be this impending source of joy that would be of significance for all people? So the angel spells it out further:
“To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord”.
All their lives these shepherds have been hearing about a Messiah whom God would send to deliver them from oppression, which for them would mean deliverance from the controlling power of Rome. Could it really be that this moment had come?
But then, that which they could not contain within the limits of their worldview suddenly takes on heavenly dimensions, as they shared in a vision which few have ever experienced.
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,[b] praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
Through this experience, the celestial reach of the event in which they are privileged participants, and which has implications for all humanity, they are transfixed and transformed.
New Era of Justice and Peace
As we celebrate Christmas this year, we do so in a world that reflects humanity as it was when God became incarnate in Jesus Christ. The Message of Christmas, which still rings true today, is that God takes on the form of human flesh in a messy world in which those who wield power control the lives of others in oppressive ways, while at the same time, entering into the sphere of humanity in its simplicity and among those on the margins of society. It is in this context that we have to proclaim the good news of the gospel. God challenges us to action that is transformative for every child whose circumstance is degrading and dehumanizing; and where human beings are without hope, justice, shelter, and the dignity which it affords.
Additionally, as we celebrate another Christmas during the COVID-19 pandemic, we must call to mind the countless women, as well as, children who have been the victims of abuse in its varied manifestations or have been mentally impacted by confinement, the inability to be with their peers and to continue their education and social adjustment.
In a world in which many live in fear of the controlling powers, whether state power or criminal gangs, God in Jesus Christ declares that we need not fear.
Amidst the social ills, we must work relentlessly to usher in a new era of peace. Peace, not imposed by oppressive control, but through justice and the ordering of life on the basis of righteousness. That must be our hope for communities across our Province that are intimidated by crime and violence, and a world in which more wars and uprisings currently prevail than at any other time in history.
May your celebration of Christmas this year reflect the universal and eternal hope and peace which are announced and fulfilled in the birth narratives of the Christ Child.
+ The Most Rev. Howard Gregory
Archbishop of the West Indies, Primate & Metropolitan
and Bishop of Jamaica & The Cayman Islands