By Jon Sobrino (English translation by Rebel Girl)
January 6, 2014
A Christmas homily-greeting by Jon Sobrino for the Feast of Epiphany
Christmas, like elite sports, like fashion and tourism, has long since fallen into the hands of industry and commerce. And in my opinion, some devotions and liturgies help to free it. There is an excess of piety and music, and a deficit of truth and justice. But there is also the desire for a world of complete human beings, like Jesus who was born twenty centuries ago.
The early Christians knew virtually nothing about how the birth of Jesus was, but they did wonder how Christian faith and life began. In a variety of situations one thing was clear to them: "Everything started with Jesus of Nazareth." With him, goodness and truth, justice and salvation came into the world. Where and when Jesus appeared is something else. They came to know that this basic event occurred in the Jordan. An austere and harsh spoken prophet named John immersed those who acknowledged themselves to be sinners in the river. That's where Jesus went when he was about 30 years. "And before the Jordan, where did Jesus come from?," they still wondered.
1. The first to answer was Paul. In his letter to the Galatian Christians about the origin of Jesus he says flatly: "Born of a woman" (Gal 4:4). It doesn't say anything more, but it says a lot. Jesus was not an angel or an alien being. He was like us and his end, like ours, was death. Except that Paul adds "death on a cross" (Phil 2:8).
2. The last was the fourth evangelist, a disciple of that John, son of Zebedee and brother of James, who wrote in the last decade of the first century. In that gospel everything begins in the eternity of God. Mysteriously, in the eternal God the word was already there. And that Word became flesh of man. He walked with us and among us he pitched his nomadic tent, like the Bedouins. This is Jesus of Nazareth, the complete man, ecce homo. And no other is the Messiah. Among men, some accepted him and became human. Others rejected him and became dehumanized.
3. Between Paul's strong statement and the sublime reflection of John, Matthew and Luke in about year 80 thought about what had happened in the beginning and gave it literary and theological form. They don't tell a story as such, certainly, but deepen its meaning for all time.
The evangelist Matthew picked up some things that were said in the communities about the birth of Jesus. He talks about his parents -- Joseph, a good man, a worker, who wanted justice for his people. And he talks about Mary, a young virgin betrothed to Joseph. Matthew states that Jesus was born in the time of King Herod, an important reminder because that way, along with all the joy of the birth of a tender one, the cruelty of which we humans are capable appears. The king ordered the children to be murdered, a tradition not taken very seriously because it would disturb Christmas. But it would help us see the hundreds of thousands of children dying of malnutrition today -- killed, because hunger can be prevented today. Thirty years ago, on December 11, 1981, Colonel Monterrosa ordered 900 peasants killed in El Mozote, of which over a hundred were not more than 12 years old.
Matthew is also the one who imagines the beautiful story of the magi who come from far away and offer the best they have. Thus he wants to say that Jesus is for everyone, not just for Jews, not only for Europeans, or just for Christians. Honest men and women will always be able to recognize Jesus as a good man who can be trusted and a strong man with whom one can walk. And to this Jesus we too can offer the best.
In chapter 25, Matthew tells where and how we find Jesus today. "When you gave food to the hungry and clothe the naked, when you welcomed the immigrant and visited the imprisoned, I was present in them." "You fed me, you clothed me, you welcomed me, you visited me!"
4. Luke was a doctor by profession, also circa year 80. And he's the one who thought and wrote stories about the birth of Jesus in greater detail and very beautifully. The story is a classic of world literature that we read during these Christmas days. Jesus' father, Joseph, is distressed by the difficult situation in which his wife finds herself -- "there was no room for them in the inn." His mother, Mary of Nazareth, is the good neighbor who went to help Elizabeth. A great believer in God, she tells Him: "Let it be done as you will." And she doesn't believe in just any God, but in the God of her people, the One who "exalts the poor and casts down the mighty from their thrones."
The friends of the family are shepherds, workers who were poorly dressed, landless peasants. To them the voice comes from on high and they are the ones who pay attention: "Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to people of good will." In El Salvador, it is impossible to forget what Monseñor said: "The glory of God is the poor person who is alive." And in Luke, Jesus now grown up differentiates some from others: "Blessed are you, the poor, you who hunger, cry, are persecuted ... You shall eat, laugh, live." "Woe to you, the rich and satisfied, those who are honored by the world ... You will be hungry, cry, God will separate you from Himself."
5. Let's leave for last the first evangelist, Mark, disciple and companion of Peter. He is writing to the community in Rome where Christians were being persecuted by the imperial powers. In Rome, Christianity began to be seen as a suspicious movement, and was persecuted and punished harshly, just like in El Salvador in the seventies and eighties, at the time of Rutilio and Romero, Ticha and Polín.
Mark doesn't narrate the birth or clarify Jesus' origins, but the latter appears in the Jordan with John the Baptist. Unlike what happens today, the most important thing for Mark is not that Jesus is a "messiah" and in the gospel, Jesus repeatedly forbids them from calling him such so they will not confuse him with someone who has power. Nor is it most important that he is the "son of God" and, indeed, in the gospel only a heathen, the Roman centurion, calls him "son of God". And he does so at the foot of the cross, a place absolutely opposite to the solemn places of the gods. Who then is Jesus? Jesus is euaggelion. Because of what he does, what he says and what he is, Jesus is good news. He is for everyone, and especially for the lowly, the sick and disadvantaged, women and children.
Throughout history, the tradition about the birth of Jesus has been changing. Theological reflection has advanced, but in the liturgy and in the popular imagination, that the child became Jesus of Nazareth has been losing significance.
From the 4th century onwards, basilicas -- seats of kings and queens, solemn, architecturally beautiful, often luxurious in art -- buried the manger, the cradle, the poverty of Joseph, Mary and Jesus. And in the 17th century, to the manger was added a fir tree from the German forests. Nicholas, a generous and good-natured 4th century male saint, became a sled driver in the snow, giving gifts to the children who have been good.
The worst is when Jesus of Nazareth is not kept much in mind at Christmas. How do we regain him? Monsignor Romero recalled in a homily that one would have to seek Jesus on Christmas night among the shoeshine boys and child glue-sniffers who were unable to gather a little money to give their mothers a gift, who would receive a huge reprimand. And he concluded by saying "how sad is our children's Christmas."
Casaldáliga still remembers the Christmas of the poor. On the cover of this Carta a las Iglesias we have published his Christmas poem this year: "'There is no room for them' still, neither in Bethlehem nor in Lampedusa." The poor remain without an inn.
However, for Monseñor and for Dom Pedro, Christmas is a source of hope and good news if we see in the child the first steps of that complete man who was Jesus of Nazareth. Every day of the year, and especially these days when we are talking about the Child Jesus, the words Leonardo Boff wrote 40 years ago are very true: "Only God can be so human."
These days we also remember Nelson Mandela who was born and took his first steps about a century ago. We've also featured him on the cover, and it occurred to us, among many other possible ones, to put these three words: Truth, Reconciliation, Love.
God is born when He passes through our world. At Christmas, we remember him liturgically. God willing, we will help make His passage real all the days of our lives. And we might be able to offer it humbly to the poor.