It was by no accident that Jesus Christ, whose earthly birthday Christians the world over celebrate on December 25, was born in conditions of abject poverty in a smelly manger in a little town called Bethlehem more than 3,000 years ago. And when Christ came into this world it was in conditions similar to those millions of poor people experience in today's modern world. Indeed, the more things change is the more they remain the same.
Bethlehem, a tiny town located six miles south of Jerusalem, in what is today the Israeli-occupied West Bank, is a modern city of over 30,000 and still remains, as it was 3,000 years ago, an agricultural region which produces grains, olives and wine and is a major trade center. The strife associated with this city has been a continuous one. After Britain's mandate over Palestine ended in 1948, the city became part of Jordan and during the 1976 Arab-Israeli War, it came under Israeli control.
When Jesus or as he was known in Palestine around AD 30, Jeshua ben Joseph, began his earthly ministry the world power at the time was Rome whose armies defeated nation after nation and held whole peoples in bondage. Roman Law demanded that the Emperor be served as a god and Imperial Rome crushed dissent and insurrection with brutal force. The conquered people lived under conditions of extreme hardship and oppression. Poverty was everywhere and hope was nowhere.
It was into this world that Jesus the Christ (from the Greek, "Christ," a rendition of the Hebrew Messiah, meaning "anointed one") was born. He was not born into the elite of the day, or the middle class which denied his pregnant mother a bed and a meal. And his first friends were not the wealthy and privileged - they were an odd assortment of fishermen and ordinary people, most of whom had experienced the heavy weight of Roman oppression.
But this teacher, sage and prophet knew that he had to give people hope and he had to lead by example. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - the first four books of the New Testament Bible - are the main sources of the life and times of Jesus Christ, from the day he was born to the day he performed the greatest miracle of all time - his ascension into Heaven.
And while some religious scholars believe that the Christian Movement began with Jesus, others argue today that there is no concrete, save Biblical evidence that he ever lived. Yet the Christian Gospel tradition originated with Jesus, according to Matthew, in his baptism by John the Baptist. This consecration of the Messiah, a figure long awaited for by an oppressed people, was to catapult Jesus smack into a collusion course with the Roman authorities.
Christ's earthly ministry was a series of examples of human compassion, forgiveness, understanding, and public service in the name of a plebeian people, victimized and shattered under the arrogance of Roman sandals. There can be no doubt that the Life and Times of Jesus the Christ is the fundamental lesson of Christmas. While the birth of Christ is celebrated by Christians on December 25th each year, the Lessons of Christmas - indeed his entire ministry on earth - lends itself to a comparison of human existence from the time he first cried in a stable with only cows, sheep and goats for company to the high-tech age of 2007.
And no matter the level of belief, the historical records of Christ's impact on this earth resound even today. There are no emperors claiming to have divine blood and linage these days, but there are men who hold whole races of people captive and in slavery, just as it was in Bethlehem 3,000 years ago. The modern conquerors do not ride horses or sail in wooden boats - they use B-52 and F-15 Bombers and Sidewinder Missiles. They stifle nations’ aspirations by modern means of oppression now refined by studying the exploits of the Caesars.
There is unbelievable poverty in the midst of plenty, just as it was 3,000 years ago. Children still die from diseases which 50 cents a day could cure and new and more dangerous "plagues and pestilences" visit mankind on a permanent basis. The lesson about feeding the hungry, so clearly taught by Jesus, when he fed the multitude with fish and bread, is lost on modern man. Helping the poor is considered "whimpish" and soft. Roman swagger has been replaced by modern arrogance.
Thousands of children die from hunger and thirst each night. Local "mini-wars" are fought each day. Ethnic cleansing, a modern version of the kind King Herod ordered are a matter of record. Religious fanatics wage wars and commit acts of terror "in God's name," just as they did 3,000 years ago.
Jesus Christ's activities, while welcomed by the poor and disenfranchised, were very unpopular, not only with the Romans, but among the elite of his own earthly race, the Jews. He incurred the hostility of the Pharisees who accused him of breaking the law and whom Christ denounced for their rigid formalisticness and unbending self-righteousness. In Jerusalem he ran afoul of the Sadducees, the elite who boasted the priestly class in their clan. And it was one of his own, Judas Iscariot, who fingered Jesus and who was to play a critical role with the treacherous Sadducees which led to Jesus' execution.
Still, a child shall lead them...
Christ's birth and death, according to Christian teachings, have fulfilled the atonement promised by God in the Old Testament. And the Christmas Story today still offers true believers hope in the future. It reinforces the basic religious premise of unquestioning faith in an all-powerful, all-knowing God.
But in the end the Christmas Story and Christ's Ministry on earth is a chronicle of good over evil. Of the transforming grace of charity, hope, love and understanding. It is the saga of a revolutionary leader who confronted the policies and politics and leaders of the day and found them wanting. If only for these basic reasons, the Christmas Story is well worth remembering and revisiting.