Valson Thampu

Christmas is nothing, if not the embryo of a new beginning. Therefore the contrariness evident in the Christmas event. Human beings have been, at all times, ambivalent about new beginnings. We long for new beginnings. We also feel unwilling, even unable, to let go on the status quo. Hence we live the ambiguity that Tolstoy mocked. Everyone wants transformation; but nobody wants to change!

Let’s get real. Change is not easy. The more radical and profound a change is, the greater its trauma. Societies and individual life-strategies are predicated on economizing energies and efforts. This makes the familiar and the predicable preferable. With the energy saved thus human beings go forward. Yet, inertia, the handmaiden of the status quo, lurks in the backyard of the economizing outlook. So, it is at once desirable and dangerous to economize. Economizing sans the forward propelling impetus results in soul enervating leisure that opens the flood gates of abuse and aberrations. The landscape of human life is dotted with many a critical juncture of potential new beginnings. They come and go, finding us unprepared and unworthy.

The Holy Babe was born when Jerusalem and believers were fast asleep! But there were a few who kept vigil, accidentally. (Accident, by the way, has a quite a different flavour in God’s scheme of things.) They were not our stereotypical religious big-wig types. Somewhere in Bethlehem, a few shepherds. And, at a distance, three Gentile priests. We know them as the Magi- surprised by joy while hard at work watching stars. They were as different from shepherds as difference can be. Yet, they had one thing in common: openness to new awareness. They responded. went and were transformed. They earned, unawares, a permanent niche in an epochal beginning. That is the kernel of Christmas.

Enigma is the insignia of the new. It is infantile to insist that the new should come in swaddling clothes of the old! The new is, for God’s sake, new. It has the right to come in the costume, if you please, of the naked. Hence the Babe. It is only for the ambassadors of the old that the Babe is naked. Swaddling clothes are the garlands of welcome that the old offers to the new. It needs to be outgrown!

But, let’s, please, reckon the enigma: this birth in a cattle shed! A trauma that we have poetized into a privilege, underlining the widening gulf between religiosity and reality. None of us wants to be born in a cattle shed and be placed in the humiliating security of a manger, a trough for cattle feed. Yet we sing and celebrate, wax eloquent and feel euphoric, about the Saviour in a manger, slurring over why it was so ordained from above.

The point is that a cattle shed is as far as a labour room can be from the stereotypes of civilization. To flag this let me refer to the perplexity of the wise men. Are not kings born in palaces? But here is a king born in a manger! Why? Well, this king is the King of new beginnings. As Jesus would say in due course, new wine is not to be kept in old bottle. The stereotype of kings –the sort of kings that history hatched- being born in palaces is the old wine in antique bottles. This new wine -the Servant King, who makes kings of servants- has to be in a new bottle, the home of the non-stereotypical, the enigmatic and the puzzling. The king being born in a cattle shed is only as puzzling as a Virgin conceiving of the Holy Spirit. We must empathize with the sentinels of the status quo when they are plagued by enigmatic improbabilities. Unlike them, we shall not insist that the enigmatic be simplistic, or the paradoxical to present itself in the physiognomy of the commonplace.

The birth of this Baby shakes a throne. And, mind you, Herod is not a particularly perverse villain. He is a king, as kings are. Everyone with a throne is a king. Or, as the way of the world goes, a king is not one who has a throne, but one who has nothing but a throne. The symbolic pole of the throne must be complemented with the plight of the people. But the reign of kings is unipolar: the throne, and the throne alone. That brutal reality is illumined by the ghastly massacre of the innocents. To the kings of this earth, the people are a dispensable commodity. The pattern holds; politics and religion become mirror images in this respect. Well, even God will be killed, if he is an inconvenience. Note this: Caiaphas, the High Priest, succeeded where Herod the king failed.

Christmas is, therefore, a festival of poverty. Laid in a manger! The plight of a baby can’t get poorer than that. But the poverty of this kind, when re-configured as a spiritual discipline, is not self-flagellation. It is the embryo of a mission, as Jesus said, ‘to lead humankind to life in its fullness’. To take the vow of poverty (now we should, perhaps, term it the ‘wow’ of poverty), in a Christmas sense, is to commit oneself absolutely and passionately to promoting fullness of life for all. Well, if not to all, at least to those within the circle of one’s responsibilities. But the key to this is being oriented to fullness of life oneself. Festival is a metaphor of this. It is, alas, distorted into an annual indulgence in belly-cheer. It only proves one thing. We are not a Christmas people; but middle men of Christmas. We stand between the event and its meaning and distort it!

The ‘tidings of great joy for all humankind’ is that a new beginning is possible. This is the Good News that the prisoners of the old order hunger and thirst after. Herod, Caiaphas and Pilate are all superfluous to the kernel of this event. They are hyper middle men of the corporate giants of the times. For that very reason they are the ‘the marginalized’ as compared to the lowly shepherds of Bethlehem vis-a-vis this festival of New Beginnings. Read now the Song of the Blessed Virgin –the Magnificat. You can’t miss in it the symphony of a new dawn.

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