As we retell the Bethlehem story each year, its familiarity can obscure one of its most important lessons. We do not celebrate at Christmas some timeless truth or immutable dogma but a particular moment. “A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Lk 1:1-2). Christians believe that this particular moment, when Luke tells us that a child was born in a manger, punctuated in a decisive way the march of human history. But for believers and nonbelievers alike the story of Bethlehem inevitably suggests a comparison between that moment and our own.
For some, of course, the celebration of the Christmas season is a pleasant pause that marks the closing of another calendar year, a momentary respite from the harsh challenges, both personal and global, that we confront in this first decade of a new millennium. But for those who believe that the eternal Word of the Father took on our human condition at Bethlehem and entered into human history, Christmas is not a season of escape but of engagement, an invitation to look at our present moment through a different lens, the mystery of the nativity of Jesus, “the wonder of the Incarnation” in the words of one of the Christmas Mass prefaces, “a new and radiant vision,” a light for a people that walk in darkness.
Our moment is a time of darkness, to be sure. Weapons of mass destruction did not haunt the imaginations of the shepherds watching their flocks, even if fear of Herod’s soldiers would drive the young couple into exile. And the threat posed by Roman authority at least had a face and a name, unlike today’s shadowy network of international terrorists, who are prepared to destroy themselves along with their random victims, and to do so in the name of religion—the ultimate blasphemy. In responding to these dangers, the leaders of nations seem unable to escape the deadly, downward spiral of violence, as suicide bombings are met by military assaults that destroy homes and families, only to feed the flames of hatred that will consume another generation of terrorists. The story of Bethlehem points to a different strategy of hope, one that relies not on the exercise of military power but on an appeal to the common instincts of the human heart.
When unofficial representatives of both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples met in Geneva recently to sign an agreement that outlined the structure of a possible peace in the Middle East, their efforts were dismissed by the Sharon government, Palestinian extremists and some supporters of Israel in the United States, who called the agreement unrealistic and riddled with dangerous compromises. But surely the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has again and again confirmed the bankruptcy of a policy that seeks to suppress terrorist attacks by ever more brutal military reprisals. The Geneva Accord represented the cry of ordinary people, Israelis and Palestinians, wearied of the cycle of violence their leaders maintain by their refusal to break out of the stalemate of ancient fears and trust the promises of peace.
The story of Bethlehem was never meant to comfort the complacent or to reassure the timid. When the Lord of history, the God of Abraham and Isaac, broke the silence of the centuries and spoke in the darkness of that first Christmas night, he did not present an explanation of the future. He offered no triumphant design for global and personal peace. Instead, he spoke through a vulnerable infant in a manger, who faced a most uncertain future and who lacked the resources that can shield children born in greater security to wealthier parents. God did not enter human history to bring us a set of guarantees about the future. Rather, God entered our history as a gracious presence that can liberate us from the paralysis of the past, but only if we have the confidence necessary to want to be liberated. The past cannot be undone, either in the histories of nations or in the lives of individuals, but the meaning of the past will be defined by our decisions in the present and the way we act and live in the future.
The Christmas story speaks to both the fragility and the resilience of human life, manifested in the miracle of birth and the possibilities of people. The story of the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, taken in a particular place and in a particular moment of time, reminds us each year that our personal lives and the communal lives of nations are also journeys, moving always into an uncertain future, remembering the past and renewing its wisdom but never allowed or condemned simply to repeat the past, a journey made in faith, confident that the final word of the story will be one of light shining in darkness and life triumphant over death.