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We should not let the deeper meaning of Christmas be lost in the wrappings

The teachings of Jesus are more important than ever now as COVID-19 threatens us all. It respects no boundaries. We can only defeat it together.

Worshippers light candles at the Church of the Nativity, the traditional place of Jesus’ birth, during preparations for Christmas in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, Dec. 19.
Worshippers light candles at the Church of the Nativity, the traditional place of Jesus’ birth, during preparations for Christmas in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, Dec. 19.
Abbas Moumani/AFP via Getty Images

On Saturday, millions of people across the world will celebrate Christmas. Even with COVID-19 still plaguing the world, families will gather; bells will ring; music will be in the air. Each year, I use this column to remind us of the true meaning of Christmas.

Christmas has become a holiday, a time to exchange presents and cards, to see friends and family. Yet Christmas is literally the mass for Christ, the celebration of the birth of Jesus, a time for prayer, for reflection, for service. The story of Jesus speaks to us still this day.

He was born under occupation. Joseph and Mary were ordered to go far from home to register with authorities. The innkeeper told Joseph there was no room at the inn. Jesus was born on a cold night, in a stable, lying in a manger. He was an “at-risk” baby. His earthly father was a carpenter, a worker, not a prince or a banker.

He was born at a time of great misery and turmoil. Prophets predicted that a new Messiah was coming who would rout the occupiers and free the people. Many expected a mighty warrior like the superheroes of today’s movies. Fearing the prophecy, King Herod, whose authority stemmed from the Romans, ordered the “massacre of the innocents,” the slaughter of all boys two and under in Bethlehem and the nearby region.

Jesus confounded both Herod’s fears and the people’s fantasies. He was a prince of peace, not of war. He gathered disciples, not soldiers. His ministry was guided by Isaiah 62:1: “the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” We will be judged, he taught us, not for our wealth or our finery or our armaments, but by how we treat “the least of these,” how we treat the stranger on the Jericho Road. He called on us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, comfort the refugee.

He became a great liberator, by his teachings and his example, not by his sword. He converted rather than conquered. He threw the money lenders from the temple. He did not accumulate worldly wealth. His brief ministry led to his crucifixion. And yet he succeeded beyond all imagination to transform the world.

Today his teachings are more important than ever. The pandemic threatens us all. It respects no boundaries. We can only defeat it together, by organizing across the world to ensure that all are vaccinated, that care is available for those who get sick, that safety precautions from masks to ventilation are universally available.

No one is safe until we all are

Yet too often, our instinct is to turn away from one another, not toward one another. For example, the Omicron variant that is now spreading across the world was discovered first by a scientist, Dr. Sikhulile Moyo, working in Botswana in Africa. He and his colleagues found the new strain in international visitors from the Netherlands. They immediately alerted public health authorities across the world, shared their research and findings, and helped mobilize immediate action to counter the new variant.

Sadly, the reaction of the world was to lock the scientist and the countries of his region out. He was not brought to the U.S. to help further the work. The administration joined some European nations in imposing travel bans on Botswana and neighboring countries, with devastating effect on their economies. Cooperation was punished, not rewarded. Worse, while Europeans and Americans are lining up for booster shots after being vaccinated, only a miniscule percentage of Africans have access to vaccination.

Even though none of us will be safe until all are safe, nationalism, drug company profits and patents and inadequate global assistance have combined to abandon millions in poorer nations without the treatments and public health capacities that they need. We put ourselves at risk even as we leave them at risk.

Once more the practical imperative of Jesus’ teachings is clear. Jesus demonstrated the astonishing power of faith, hope and charity, the importance of love. He called upon us to care for the stranger on the Jericho Road. In an age of global pandemics, good will to all is not merely a holiday slogan, it is a survival imperative.

In this secular age, we should not let the deeper meaning of Christmas be lost in the wrappings. Jesus called us to turn to one another, not on one another. He demonstrated the power of summoning our better angels, rather than rousing our fears or furthering our divisions.

This Christmas, this surely is a message not merely to remember but to practice. Merry Christmas, everybody.

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