An evocative line-drawing did the rounds of social media in the days leading up to Christmas. It showed an open stable with a bright star over it, fir trees on either side, and only a cow, a sheep and a donkey around an empty manger inside the stable.

A comic depicting the nativity scene. Image Courtesy: Joanna Wieruszewska, Marek Wieruszewski

A comic depicting the nativity scene. Image Courtesy: Joanna Wieruszewska, Marek Wieruszewski

The caption was thought-provoking: “A nativity scene without Jews,  Arabs,  Africans or refugees.”

Scenes commemorating the nativity (birth) of Jesus normally show an infant in the manger, surrounding by Mary, Joseph, shepherds and three ‘wise men from the East,’ — who are often depicted as Africans but could very well have been from India.

Amid the bright lights, presents, parties and decoration-festooned shopping splurges, it is easy to forget that Jesus’ parents were impoverished travellers who had been given shelter in a cattle shed, where he was born.

He remained poor through his life. Yet, without influence, social standing or political ambition, he resisted the rich and powerful. One of his most striking teachings is that it is tougher for a rich man to enter heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

That is reminiscent of the Prophet Mohammed’s claim that ‘poverty is my pride.’ It also brings to mind Guru Nanak’s mendicant ways, Buddha’s insistence on begging, and the Jain emphasis on abnegation. The birth legends of Jesus and Krishna have some parallels too: both were predicted to be dangerous for tyrannous regimes.

Indeed, Jesus met a gruesome death, by crucifixion, partly owing to his trenchant criticism of the established clergy of his time. Accusing them of having turned the temple into a den of thieves and gamblers, he broke up a normal day’s gathering of the movers and shakers of his time in Jerusalem’s grand temple. He taught inclusivity, and privileged the poor and socially marginal.

Modern concerns

Amid the pomp and pageantry of religious practice, it is easy to forget the nature, values and attitudes of the man whose birth Christmas celebrates. But it is worth focusing on what Jesus actually represented, especially at a time when impoverishment, xenophobia, racism and refusal to give refuge, have become very potent issues — as that recent sketch on social media highlighted.

The issue of poverty came into prominence in the middle of the 20th century too, when the Western Church faced a lot of soul-searching.

The World Council of Churches, established by several leading Protestant and Orthodox Churches in 1948, pressed for social responsibility, environmental conservation and fraternal relations not only between different Church traditions but also different faiths. They grappled with apartheid, hunger, gender discrimination, and human rights in Latin America and elsewhere. ‘Justice,
Peace and the Integrity of Creation’ became the Council’s watchword around the 1970s and 1980s.

For the Roman Catholic Church too, the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were a period of wrenching turbulence. Given its size and influence, that was of huge historical import. After Pope John XXIII called for a rethink of the Church’s modern agenda, a pro-poor, culturally ‘indigenised’, inclusive vision emerged.

Difficult journey

By the time the Vatican Council ended in 1965, a new pope was in office. Uneasy about rocking the boat, he sought to ease in changes moderately. But the election of the little known John Paul as his successor in 1978 jolted the establishment. This short-lived pope resisted traditional royal pageantry at his installation, and made it clear he wanted to clean out the system in the Vatican.

John Paul did not last. And, under Pope John Paul II and his lieutenant, Cardinal Ratzinger (who succeeded him as Pope Benedict XVI), the liberal, inclusive, gender-sensitive and pro-poor vision that the Vatican Council had set out were put aside.

Many observers thought that those two popes had erased the liberal legacy of the Vatican Council through their appointments of cardinals and bishops in the 35 years from 1978 to 2013. Indeed, among the electors in even 2005, only one cardinal other than Ratzinger had been appointed before 1978.

And yet, the spirit of the Vatican Council remained alive. It is clearly visible in Pope Francis — almost as if John Paul were back.

Like John Paul, Pope Francis has faced resistance to his efforts to change the ethos of the prelates who run the Church. For the third year running, he has complained about this publicly during his Christmas speech to Vatican prelates. Christmas is “the feast of the loving humility of God, of the God who upsets our logical expectations, the established order,” he told them on 22 December.

Indeed, a leaf out of Jesus’s life can upset those who thrive on fear and prejudice — those who are becoming today’s ‘established order.’

First Published On : Dec 25, 2016 08:46 IST

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Christmas 2016: Celebrating birth of an impoverished migrant has a message for today’s world