Christmas can mean different things to different people. For businesses, it means holiday shopping and increased sales. For workers in different countries, it means bonus pay and a holiday break — if they’re lucky. And for retail workers, it’s hell.
But for over two billion people around the globe, the twinkling lights and holiday jingles are all part of celebrating the birth of Jesus. Though He wasn’t actually born on December 25, He is, as they say, the reason for the season, as His coming down to Earth is a core part of the Christian faith.
But Who Was He?
Over the years, a lot has been said and written about Jesus. In the New and Old Testaments of the Bible alone, He’s called hundreds of things — Savior, Redeemer, Bread of Life, Son of the Living God… you get the message.
But there’s also not a lot about Him that the world’s experts can universally agree on. And to date, there are only three hard historical facts about Him:
- He existed;
- He was a Jew from Nazareth who started a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the start of the first century; and
- Rome crucified Him for it.
That doesn’t sound like much to know about a person, but He was a poor man who lived a couple of thousand years ago, and those types of people typically don’t leave behind a ton of archeological evidence the way pharaohs and kings do.
Jesus, the Rule-Breaker
From those three things, we can posit that Jesus was a revolutionary leader that threatened the establishment enough to be sentenced to death. He wasn’t exactly the gentle, meek, or mild leader some people make Him out to be. If the gospel accounts of His life were to be believed (which is a whole other debate), it’s clear that He was something of a rule-breaker.
What I mean is that Jesus consistently defied the customs of his time. He wasn’t afraid to break rules many people came to accept as unbreakable, and He ruffled plenty of feathers along the way.
Though His life was a relatively short blip in history, the things He said and did — at least according to scripture — form a legacy that has had plenty of staying power. As the following examples show, He was (and is!) pretty rad.
The Power of Forgiveness
When Jesus was alive, the prevailing culture around him was rule-obsessed. For Jews at the time, the only way you could be righteous was by obeying Jewish law, which tended to be very strict. Forgiveness often only came in exchange for blood sacrifice. Because of this, people who disobeyed the rules often and badly enough were considered hopelessly irredeemable.
It wasn’t just a spiritual thing. People believed sickness was tied to sin, and particular illnesses were often believed to be the result of disobeying the law, or some meddling by Satan himself. Therefore, it was wise to stay away from the sick and “unclean.”
Enter: Jesus, who not only spoke about the forgiveness of sins, even for those that society had deemed to be lost causes, but also let the sick touch Him so they could be healed.
He didn’t condemn them the way others would, nor judge them for having sinned and, therefore, dismiss them as deserving of whatever sickness they suffered.
We see this refusal to conform with social hierarchy in other, non-miraculous ways, too. Jesus tended to reject authority and choose the poor and downtrodden at every turn. When it comes to economic inequality, He was pretty consistent.
When a rich young man asked him how he could get to heaven, for example, He told him to sell all that he has and give the money to the poor. When he seemed uneasy about the idea, Jesus reminded him that God basically told everyone to love their neighbor as themselves, and it wasn’t very holy of him to have a house full of riches when his neighbors were dying of hunger.
Jesus didn’t stutter. After this, He turned and told Simon, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
The Huge Thing that Jesus was telling people to do for the poor and downtrodden can be divided into six parts:
- Feed the hungry
- Give a drink to the thirsty
- Clothe the naked
- Shelter the homeless
- Visit those in prison
- Comfort the sick.
A Focus on the Margins
This focus on the oft-repeated last, lost, and least was evident in the way He planned out His travels, too. The Man was walking around a lot, healing people and telling them to love their neighbor, but a spatial analysis reveals a bit more about his itinerary.
Palestine at the time of Jesus was arranged in terms of the city or urban center, and the rural areas. The center was the locus of power and wealth, as well as the Roman colonizers and their Hellenistic culture, while the chora, or the countryside, was poor despite being overworked and supplying the goods and services the center needed.
(Depending on where you live, this set-up feels very current, still.)
What the gospel stories tell us indirectly is that apart from a few occasions, including His final return to Jerusalem, Jesus’s whole ministry was with the people of the chora — the people at the figurative and literal margins. These towns and villages are where He did much of His teaching and healing work.
Jesus had a problem — not with the faith of his people and the writings of Moses — He had a problem with the way the faith was operationalized in religion. He argued all the time with Pharisees, scribes, and religious leaders, and acted against some of their rules when He felt that people’s needs were more important.
Remember the paralytic He healed with just his words? He did that on a Sabbath, which angered religious leaders because no one was supposed to do any miracles on a mandated rest day. But the man had been unable to walk for a whopping 38 years, and that was clearly more important than Him taking a day off.
There was also the time He threw a fit in a temple because He saw that it was being overrun by money changers and merchants selling doves. Disrupting business, He flipped their tables and drove them out, angry at them for turning His Father’s House into a “den of robbers.”
And then He did what “loving your neighbor” was always supposed to mean: He invited in the sick and disabled, who were traditionally excluded from the holy space.
Perhaps my favorite thing that He did was to save a woman from being stoned to death. In Jewish law, people pay with their lives for three offenses: murder, idolatry, and adultery. The story goes that while he was teaching at a temple, a bunch of scribes and Pharisees brought a woman to Him and explained that she was caught in the act of committing adultery, and must be stoned to death, according to the law of Moses.
He ignored them at first, but at their prodding, He said, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” When they realized that they were all sinners, they simply went away.
He also broke tradition for women in less dramatic ways, like hanging out with “unclean” prostitutes and taking on women as students, which wasn’t really a thing back then.
From Each, to Each
Here, I’d like to draw inspiration from a similarly divisive figure: Karl Marx. He famously wrote in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his need!”
Now, Jesus wasn’t exactly a communist (this is a completely different debate altogether), He and His followers were pretty big on this idea. In the book of Matthew, Jesus said, “To one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to each according to his ability,” and in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, which tells the events that take place after His ascension to heaven, His followers were described to have “sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need.”
Christian communism, then and now, is rooted in that basic concept: Contribute what you can, and receive based on what you need. It sounds simple, but it’s pretty difficult, and you’d be surprised at the kinds of resistance (and demonization) this kind of thinking has inspired around the globe.
The Bottom Line
The stories mentioned above, of course, are taken from the bible with a grain or two of salt. It is, after all, the book where God basically kills millions of people (see: Noah’s Ark in Genesis; the plagues in Exodus — and those are just the first two books in the bible), and yet is still used by pro-lifers as some sort of supporting document for their arguments.
So, yes. It may not be irrefutable capital T truth to everyone, which is alright. But if it’s what two billion people or so confess to believe, then surely its contents still matter? Despite the lack of archeological evidence outside of Jesus’s existence and death, the bible shapes the way Christians around the world think about themselves, their role here on earth, and more importantly, what needs to change.
This Christmas, what I do want to highlight from all this is how more than two thousand years later, the radical things Jesus said and did still feel pretty radical, which is worrying.
Today, our policies and even our public spaces hate the homeless, and many of our industries would rather food go to waste than go into hungry people’s stomachs if it meant saving money. Moreover, as people across the globe continue to feel the disastrous economic effects of the pandemic, the world’s billionaires continue to get even richer — and we’re glorifying them for it.
We live in a time when activists fighting for our right to live in a just and habitable planet are maligned or imprisoned. Worse still, we live in a time when the standard response to the suffering of our neighbors is just thoughts and prayers.
Jesus lived and died in the service of the poor and the downtrodden. He dreamed of a better world, where the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned, and the homeless get the help that they need, and He did what He can in the short time He was here.
I’m just saying, maybe the best way to celebrate His birth is to do the same.