Jesus represents a turning point in world history: Suddenly, the message of love was underscored, lifted and laid bare.
Perhaps my favorite passage in the gospels occurs in Mark 12:28-31. A man who has heard Jesus teaching asks him bluntly: "Of all the commandments, what is the most important one?" Jesus doesn't hesitate to answer, saying there are two key commandments. "Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself." These teachings form the central tenets of the faith, and they remain at the very heart of Christianity.
The gospels narrate the life of Jesus vividly, with two of them -- Matthew and Luke -- offering different versions of his birth -- the Christmas story.
In Matthew, we get a story of terror and flight: The wicked King Herod wants to get rid of a potential rival, whose rumored birth has unsettled him. (The Wise Men, having passed through Jerusalem en route to visit Jesus, spilled the beans about a new "king of the Jews," and thus Herod learned of the existence of a potential rival.) To escape Herod's order for the massacre of all male children under the age of 2, Jesus and his family flee to Egypt, where they hide until the coast is clear, at which point they return to Nazareth safely.
Matthew's tone is somber, even grave, throughout his narrative: The baby Jesus and his family become refugees, and there is a sense of foreboding that reflects the date of its composition -- around the time when the great temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman army, once again scattering the Jewish population to the four winds.
In Luke, we get a calmer story, a pastoral one: with shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, and Jesus being born nearby, in a lowly manger in Bethlehem, and then (eight days later, in accord with Jewish tradition) taken to Jerusalem for the ritual dedication of a child.
Luke traces the ancestry of Jesus back to Abraham, emphasizing his universality -- he is indeed the savior of the human race, not just the Jews. Luke's voice in these Christmas passages is joyful, celebratory. The angel says to the shepherds on the night of Jesus' birth: "Do not be afraid. I bring you news that will be a great joy for all the people." (Luke 2:10)
Having both Christmas stories rounds out our idea of what the coming of Jesus means.
In Matthew, he enters a world of political turmoil: Herod the Great was a tyrant, a megalomaniac, and yet easily threatened by a child. And it's moving to think of Jesus and his family as refugees escaping over the border, bewildered and afraid.
This aspect of the story appeals to our deep instinct to protect all of those who flee oppression -- in America, a tradition that goes back centuries. (Our pilgrim fathers were, of course, in flight from persecution when they first arrived on our shores in November of 1620.)
The softer story found in Luke is comforting, as one thinks of the joy that Jesus brought to his parents and the community in Jerusalem, who welcomed him to the temple (Luke 2:22-40).
Jesus was seen as "a light for revelation to the Gentiles" as well as the "glory" of his people, Israel. We hear that Jesus, as a child, "grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him."
The message that Jesus brought to the world was one of tolerance. As a grown man, he sat and broke bread with lepers and whores, with the poor, with those in need of protection. He taught that great wealth was a hindrance to salvation, and cautioned his followers: "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth." (Matthew 6:19).
In the Sermon on the Mount, his most central teaching (which appear in Chapters 5, 6 and 7 of Matthew), he said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit" and "Blessed are the meek." He lauded "the peacemakers," and reminded his followers that Hebrew scripture said, "Thou shall not kill." But he went a step further, saying: "Thou shalt not even become angry."
At every turn, he modeled calmness, forgiveness, a willingness to go the extra mile on behalf of his neighbor.
Jesus urged us to turn the other cheek when struck. He asked us not only to tolerate our enemies, but to love them. This is a fierce teaching, but it's the greatest message that has ever come to us.
Finally, Jesus said: "Judge not, unless you wished to be judged yourself." (Matthew 7:1)
Christ put before us a hard path, one that few have really tried to follow. As G. K. Chesterton famously wrote:
"The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried."
In this difficult year in American life, we've been buffeted by loud, scornful voices. The idea of loving our neighbors as ourselves has been mostly set aside. And we have all been (I condemn myself here) too quick to judge.
As we settle into Christmas and its festivities, I hope we allow Jesus to speak to us, as he did, so vividly in the gospels. And I hope we remember his message of peace, inclusion and radical equality. This teaching has lost nothing of its urgency. It's a light that shines in this dark time.