By Jeanette Arnquist
I often ask myself who I would be in the Gospel narratives of the Nativity if I had lived in Bethlehem in the 1st Century, and if I would have recognized Jesus as something special if I had seen him.
I invite you to time travel back to his birth with me and open this question once again. (This column is supposed to be about social justice. So hang on, we will get there.)
Before we go, I want you to forget the typical images on Christmas cards depicting the story of the birth of Jesus. In reality, there were no golden halos or nice clean, cute animals.
The world into which Jesus was born was divided into a very small number of very rich people, like King Herod and the Romans, and a very large number of very poor people. Most people lived in one room houses with dirt floors. They subsisted day to day. If they were Jews they probably followed the dietary rules and other purity codes. They worked hard, often in the fields or tending flocks. So let’s suppose that we join the group of shepherds.
We may have noticed the couple taking refuge in the cave. The woman (well, really, a girl) was very pregnant and exhausted after walking 80 miles, a journey of four to eight days. The man was like most men, trying to be helpful, but no one could really help make a woman who is nine months pregnant comfortable in a strange situation. There were lots of people moving around for the census, so this would not have been the first time we had seen people camping in the cave.
We would not have been surprised that she went into labor. We would have been surprised when our companion shepherds told us that they had had a vision of angels. What were they drinking? When they invited us to go with them to see the Messiah we were overcome with curiosity, so we went.
What would we have seen? A couple -- just like people in our own families. Poor. Too poor to afford a room. Birth is bloody and there would have been blood around because most women don’t have the energy to clean it up right after giving birth. And remember – blood is unclean – so probably there wasn’t a lot of help available. Perhaps there would have been a midwife there to help.
A baby boy – just like so many – wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in the manger. Would we be thinking “There is the Messiah?”
Let’s suppose that somehow the message got through our thick heads and hard hearts. Let’s suppose that somehow we saw the outpouring, overflowing love that God showered on this family. Let’s suppose that we recognized the inherent dignity possessed by this little baby. Let us suppose that we realized we were in the presence of something very holy and very sacred.
So what does this have to do with social justice?
We recognized the presence of God in a very unlikely situation. We recognized the human dignity in this very undignified situation. We began to understand that the free, undeserved gift God sends each and every one of us is our human dignity. And when we learn to accept this in ourselves and in all of our brothers and sisters, then we understand the underlying principle upon which all of Catholic Social Teaching is built, “Respect for the Life and Dignity of the Human Person.”
If we can recognize the dignity in Mary in her most unpresentable moment, in Joseph, motivated to hang in there by a dream, and in the naked, newborn baby Jesus, then we can recognize it in the migrant, the homeless person, the children starving in Yemen as well as in the rich and famous people we will never meet in person. If our love for each of these children of God motivates us to compassionate action, then we are not far from the Kingdom of God.
Jeanette Arnquist is a former Director of the Department of Life, Dignity and Justice for the Diocese. She is reitred and living in Tuscon, Arizona where she remains active in social concerns ministries.