For millions of Filipinos, Christmas is a celebration of the family. They come together from around the world, they delight in the togetherness and sharing of respect. They honor the aged, they bless the children, they feed the hungry. They fill the churches with light, song and festival and bring the children to be baptized and they have joyful celebrations. They recall the story of that astounding child who became the greatest person to influence the history of mankind for the good.
Christmas is a time to celebrate the greatest values of human kind brought to us thousands of years ago by the Child from Nazareth. He survived the poverty and the dangers and grew up at the knee of his mother and the workbench of his father and was taught the Song of Mary, that most challenging of songs.
He learned well from his parents who had suffered poverty, rejection and who fled the massacre of the children by Herod and they crossed the border into Egypt as impoverished refugees. They knew the merciless anger of the fanatical tyrant king Herod and seen the intolerable injustice of his regime.
The child heard the stories and listened when his mother sang that song where the mighty power of love would scatter the proud elite and rubbish all their evil plots and plans, where the mighty elite would be put down from their positions of power and the poor would be lifted up.
The teenage youth from Nazareth learned how such love can change the world and fill the hungry with good things and how in justice the selfish rich are sent away empty to reflect, repent and ask forgiveness for their greed, arrogance and abuse. He grew to be that powerful personality who was and is a hero of the oppressed and became a threat to their rulers. He was a great teacher, a servant leader and the example of self-sacrificing love where no greater love can be found but in giving one’s life for others. It was a loving message of compassion and care, helping and sacrifice.
But justice, equality and compassion for the poor, the refugees and the homeless had no place in the society into which he was born. The culture and religion of his time had become fanatical and cruel- stoning the women, crucifying the dissidents, beheading the reformers. He taught justice, compassion, mercy, and love of neighbor. It was a world where such great powerful values were salvation for the huddled masses ground underfoot by the religious intolerance and oppression and the military might that claimed to be always right.
Rebellion and wars were common in a world where foreign military occupation, oppression and exploitation of the poor by the rich, the control of the many by the few, the silencing of protest and opposition with the sword was the way of life. In that violent culture, Jesus of Nazareth was a indeed a savior.
The poor and disposed realized the truth that they were not the dung, vomit and a curse on the earth as the rulers told them they were. The prophet from Nazareth told them that was untrue; that they are the children of eternal goodness and love that they are worthy of the dignity inherent in every person. He said they are called to a life of dignity, have inalienable human rights and equality and have a right to a happy prosperous life. Blessed are the poor for they have the right to inherit the earth, he said.
Johnstown, Pennsylvania. 1941
The knowledge of this powerful truth if lived out would awaken them and give them the courage to transform their society. This truth would set them free. The Child from Nazareth set out to change the world, to turn it on its head to cause a non-violent peaceful spiritual revolution with social justice. Before he could make it a reality he was arrested, jailed, tortured, and given the death penalty. The barbarism of the intolerant religious fanatics and Roman cruelty ended his mission and scattered his followers. Today it seems the powerful truth and dream of a just society where equality and love of neighbor reigns does not escape the barbarism of modern conflict and corporate greed.
That great truth revealed by the Man from Nazareth would only be realized when his followers had shunned all exploitation, violence, and abuse and organized a community to live out the extraordinary values together. They would be helping each other as one family and making those values real. What emerged was a powerful social and spiritual movement based on personal dignity and social justice that was capable of redeeming humanity, changing society from being a cruel and brutal regime to one of compassion, forgiveness mercy and love of neighbor following the example of the Good Samaritan.
It was this force that came into the world at the first Christmas, had its roots in the Song of Mary, and had the possibility of saving suffering humanity from the garbage heap of rich man’s dominance. But sadly it seems to have failed, or has it? When he was born so was this dream but can it ever be a reality in the modern world or remain a dream, an unattainable reality? It is up to each one of us to work together to make that dream come true.
Rev. Shay Cullen is a Catholic priest who serves the people of the Philippines. He is a co-founder of PREDA.org - a nonprofit that protects impoverished and exploited children.