By Anil Netto

Dec 22 2020

After all, the pandemic has taken a toll on the world and the economy has slumped. Many people are unemployed and suffering. Federal debt and exposure to liability has reached a mind-boggling RM1.3 trillion.

This Christmas, it might be easy to feel morose and gloomy.

After all, the pandemic has taken a toll on the world and the economy has slumped. Many people are unemployed and suffering. Federal debt and exposure to liability has reached a mind-boggling RM1.3 trillion.

Politically, the situation is fluid, in a state of flux – not a situation that inspires confidence.

While many are suffering, wealth in the world is concentrated more and more in the hands of a small elite group. And that concentration of wealth is increasing by the year.

Within the Malaysian Church, many are still mourning the demise of Cardinal Soter Fernandez.

So what is there to celebrate, many might wonder? Imagine, if you will, the darkness that surrounded the world when Jesus was born, probably between 6 BC and 4 BC. It might be useful to place it in a bit of context.

The people were ruled by the tyrannical Herod the Great, who towards the end of his life was growing mentally unstable. It didn’t help that he was suffering from an excruciating disease.

The massacre of the innocents below the age of two, mentioned in the Gospels, may not be a part of recorded history elsewhere  — perhaps because Bethlehem was such a small place of perhaps a thousand inhabitants. The Jewish historian Josephus does not mention the massacre, while the Catholic Encyclopedia suggests the number of those killed may have been around half a dozen to a few dozen (Wikipedia).

But what is certainly part of history is that Herod even had a couple of his own children executed for fear they would be a threat to his own rule. Word of Herod’s ruthlessness reached Emperor Augustus Caesar (no angel himself), who apparently remarked it is better to be Herod’s pig, than his son! So Herod was capable of anything.

Economically, times were hard. Herod had indulged in a spree of mega-projects. He built his palace Herodium 21km south of Jerusalem and other palaces or fortresses in Jerusalem, Masada, and Caesarea Maritima.

He completely refurbished the Second Temple of Jerusalem into a magnificent structure. This was his masterpiece, and  the work on the surroundings of the temple proper continued well after his death.

How did he finance all this? Herod had vast resources at his disposal, from tracts of land he had acquired, royalties from copper mines, plantations, confiscations of valuables, temple taxes which poured into the Temple and of course taxes on the people.

Resentment against Roman occupation was also simmering. Revolts broke out when Herod finally passed away, with devastating consequences. It was in this milieu that Jesus was born.

The contrast between the humble birth of Jesus in a manger, perhaps in a cave, and the enormous wealth at Herod’s disposal could not have been more stark.

While Herod lived in a palace with banquet halls, baths and rooms for hundreds of guests, Jesus was laid in a manger, which some believe to be a stone watering trough for animals — rather than the popularly depicted place where hay is placed for animals  to feed.

In these humble beginnings shone a light in the darkness.

Where the magnificent Temple stood just 10km away, in Jerusalem, the Wisdom and Justice of God dwelled in Jesus, who was born amidst poverty in Bethlehem. Nearby were shepherds and other country folk, low on the rung of the social ladder. Likewise, as Jesus grew up, he lived in the hamlet of Nazareth, also on the periphery of another city, Sepphoris. So this was the Jesus born to the world, living and mingling among the humble, the poor and the dispossessed.

We can draw hope in our own tough times. Despite the absence of much festive cheer, we can still celebrate Emmanuel, “God is with us” in the quiet of our homes and in the manger of our hearts.

It is this presence that gives us hope and light in the darkness of our time: a little child born into world to make known the love, compassion, joy and redemption of the Father who would proclaim a new kingdom of justice and peace and rescue us from slavery and sin.

This is the joy of the Gospel, the Good News for all of Creation, and this is why we should never give up hope in the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed.

A blessed Christmas to you all. – Herald Malaysia