Each year as we celebrate Christmas, we read the story of the miraculous birth of Jesus. The Virgin Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the angels, and the Magi from the East are with us every year. However, the story never gets old! It warms our hearts to be reminded how prophecy was fulfilled through the birth of a tiny baby in Bethlehem. Like the Magi, who saw a star in the sky and left their home countries to follow it, when we hear the Christmas story, we also follow the light of hope and love to the manger where Jesus is laid.
We don’t know much about these special visitors called Magi, actually. We don’t know what countries they came from, or their professions, or their genders. We don’t really know how many there were! But we do know that when they saw the rising star they understood something very special had happened. And so they left their businesses, their families, and their homes, and followed the star.
The star first led them to meet the political leaders of Jerusalem, where they began a dialogue with the authorities. “Where is the child who was born king of the Jews?” they asked. “For we have observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.” (Matt 2:2) Of course, King Herod was disturbed to hear that a heavenly king was challenging his secular authority. The religious authorities reminded him of the prophecy: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah, for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel. (Matt 2:6, Micah 5:2)
Herod decided he could use these visitors from the East from his own narrow self-interest and political purposes. But an angel of God changed the Magi’s travel plans, which frustrated Herod’s evil efforts. I find it interesting why the religious authorities, who had read prophecy themselves, and memorized the Holy Bible, did not join the Magi in following the star to the manger in Bethlehem, but remained in their seats of power and privilege in Jerusalem.
When the Magi followed the star they noticed that it stopped over the place where the child was born. (Matt 2:9) They were overwhelmed with joy to meet this tiny one who would be the King of kings and Lord of lords. They brought him three precious gifts from their countries: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matt 2:10-11)
This is the story often called the Greatest Story Ever Told. We know it very well! The question I have this Christmas is this: How will we follow the footsteps of the Magi in the coming year? What does it mean for us to follow the rising star in the context of COVID-19, political upheaval, climate change, racism, occupation, fear, and the uncertainties of the future? What would it look like for Christians to bring our best gifts to the Christ Child?
Just as the Magi brought three precious gifts to the baby, I want to lift up three gifts that the Christian community could offer Our Lord today.
Follow the star of Bethlehem.
First gift: Justice
First, the United Nations is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. There is no doubt that the UN was conceived as a platform to help states to coordinate around the world’s hot issues. They have succeeded in diffusing many conflicts and the world and have contributed much to the good of humanity. It is always good when people are united in a spirit of unity and cooperation for the sake of justice.
However, we are still learning how to live in a post-colonial world. It is clear that the powerful and privileged still have the final say. Human rights are violated every day in various parts of the world. This includes violations of the freedom of religion as well as suppression of minority voices. Powerful countries and majority groups are following their own narrow national interests rather than the truth of justice.
Power should never blind us to justice. Justice is not owned by any state. It is a God-given right that should be applied equally to all states, nations, and human beings. In fact, we know that God cares deeply for the poor, the oppressed, and the voiceless. Professor Anthony Pinn of Houston’s Rice University comments: “God is intimately connected to the community that suffers. God becomes part of that community.” And we know that Our Lord Jesus, the baby king born in Bethlehem, proclaimed in the synagogue in Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to the let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:16-19)
For this reason, I believe one precious gift we can give the Christ Child is for the member states of the UN to follow the rising star and ensure justice for the powerful and less powerful countries alike. The well-being of all peoples and nations is the guarantee of a shared security for the world.
Follow the star of Bethlehem.
Second gift: Health
Recently I watched as Margaret Kennon became the first person in the UK to be vaccinated against COVID-19. A reporter asked her, “How do you feel?” This 91-year-old woman answered: “It is a bonus for me and my life.” This really touched me, and made me realize that the coronavirus has taught us two important lessons.
First, we have been reminded that we share one common humanity, regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, caste, religious or political affiliation. The virus trespasses all borders, without a visa. It does not heed any political authority and respects no social status. Finally, we are starting to understand that we are interconnected and interdependent.
Secondly, this pandemic has taught us patience. Even when we follow proper precautions (washing hands, wearing masks, maintaining social distance) we still must be patient. Scientists and researchers have been working diligently, and I thank God that in such a short time they have been able to develop vaccines. Still, a world free of COVID-19 is still a way off. We must be patient. We must continue to love God and love our neighbors through safe and healthy practices.
In the meantime, I wonder: What can be done to ensure that any vaccine is distributed equally to developed and developing countries? Will countries with a poor GDP be able to protect their citizens? I want to hear Margaret Kennon’s joyful cry of “bonus” from the people of the poorest nations in the world. Even if I receive a vaccine, I will not be healthy until the poorest of my neighbors receives the same. This is the second gift we can give to the Christ Child: Ensuring the health of every human being through equitable distribution of vaccines.
Follow the star of Bethlehem.
Third gift: Liberation
As the results of the recent election in the US were being announced, I watched as one African-American CNN reporter, Van Jones, wiped away tears. His joy, and relief, moved me as well. One thousand kilometers away from him and his country, a tear dropped from my eye here in Jerusalem. I gave this tear a name: It is the tear of the desire for liberation.
It can be that sometimes the powerful ignore the tear of liberation. This tear expresses the deep humiliation that is embedded in heart of the oppressed. But at the same time, this tear emphasizes that nobody can take away our God-given humanity and dignity. Not even the powerful can ignore it ultimately. Racism, white supremacy, incitement, occupation, injustice – these are not the will of the babe in the manger. The powerful and the cruel can attempt to ignore our tears, but as the story of Exodus teaches us: God hears the cry of the oppressed.
The tears of all the oppressed will become a symphony the oppressors can no longer ignore. Again, to quote Prof. Anthony Pinn: “God’s presence in the world is best depicted through the struggle of justice.” And from the prophet Micah: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
As I write this Christmas message from Jerusalem at the end of this most extraordinary year, we are still waiting for liberation in the Holy Land. Many politicians are talking about a “new Middle East.” But a new Middle East will only succeed when the Palestinian people receive their legitimate rights. There can be nothing “new” until the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict is solved, guaranteeing equal justice for all. Palestinians, just as the Israelis, deserve a safe and secure state. Ending the occupation is liberation for all of us. Our shared security lies on the establishment of equality, justice, and freedom.
Follow the Star of Bethlehem.
This Christmas, I pray that you will join me in walking the path of the Magi, following the rising star to the manger. Together, we can bring the precious gifts of justice, health, and liberation to all people.
Let us follow the star, kneeling and paying homage to our Lord and Savior, by caring for our neighbors, and working for liberation and salvation for the people of every nation. Together, at the manger of Our Lord Jesus, let us pray with the prophet Micah: “But as for me, I will look to the Lord, I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me.” (Micah 7:7)
I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year 2021, full of justice, health, liberation, and peace.