Happy Birthday, Jesus!
Christmas is celebrated traditionally by giving. As we remember the story of those gifts the Magi brought for the infant Jesus which spoke of his future as high priest, saviour and eternal ruler, we give of our resources to those for whom we care. Though we offer our time and talents for God’s use every day often at Christmas we become wistfully aware that we were not present to offer gifts to the baby Jesus. We were not there at the stable amid the lowing cattle, and the shepherds. We did not hear the choir of angels nor did we see the wondrous star of Bethlehem. Some churches harness this sense of regret by organizing “Christmas Bowl” appeals for the needy. Upon re-reading Micah 6: 6-8 we hear the Word assuring us that God wants no gifts – be they sacrifices of rams, oil or our children – from us; instead we are asked to walk humbly with God , loving mercy and justice.
This Christmas we could ponder the limits we can be expected to observe regarding mercy and justice – just as Peter and Jesus pondered the limits of forgiveness. Does our involvement in justice and mercy end in our own communities, cities or countries?
In the Sudan the aid group Medicins Sans Frontieres speak of witnessing starvation and illness in a land ravaged by fifteen years of wars and famine. There is no food. There are no medicines. Mothers, carrying babies, walk their children across this barren land, searching for any scrap of sustenance, but fail and die.
In Mexico floods have washed away or buried thousands of houses, while hundreds of people are dead and almost a thousand others are missing. Survivors are fighting each other for tortilla flour and bottles of pure water brought in by helicopter.
The people in Bangladesh have experienced the most extensive flooding this century. Twenty million folk have been left homeless. The water supply is contaminated. Children are succumbing to diarrhea, cholera and dehydration. Authorities fear the spread of malaria and dengue fever, for which there is no vaccine. Desperate shortages of food and medicine threaten the health and ultimately the lives of survivors.
In the Indian State of West Bengal more than 200,000 people suffer from skin lesions caused by arsenic contaminated water. An estimated five million people living on the food plain of the Ganges are exposed to this contaminated water. In neighbouring Bangladesh up to sixty million people – half the population – are at risk from arsenic-polluted water. This is the largest mass poisoning in the world, and it is human assisted. Since 1962 when the first tube well was built and water for crops and drinking gushed forth the underground water level began to drop. This has exposed the arsenic bearing pyrite bedrock to air. The pyrite then oxidises, causing a reaction which flushed arsenic into the remaining water. By the early 1970s villagers exhibited signs of arsenic poisoning including conjunctivitis, diarrhea, rotting nails, bleeding sores and a form of gangrene. Even though in 1983 when Professor K.C. Saha of Calcutta’s School of Tropical Medicine traced the cause of these diseases to the tube wells, the only response from the Government has been the announcement of a massive project to build thousands more of these tube wells.
In Ethiopia another year of famine is being endured, but perhaps because this is a continuing problem the press have become silent and no appeals are launched on behalf of these once proud people. Perhaps in time when Ethiopians become a “threatened or endangered species” the world will again notice their plight.
In countries with recently constituted democracies we find that opposition political parties are banned, and civil law and order is enforced by both the police and military forces. Ethnic cleansing and racism seem to be flourishing in countries right across our current “civilized” world. We are witnessing clones of the murder squads which typified World War 2 solving “problems” in various countries by the process of elimination of those of other cultures, religions or differing political views.
As Christians we know there is something beyond justice, that mercy needs always to be weighed in the balance. God desires from us a surrender of our spirit, not of the flesh or any material possessions. To live justly and with mercy walking humbly with God, is to express our morality as a living witness to our faith journey, our perfect submission to God. Mercy is the ability to see things with another’s eyes, to experience another’s feelings. The supreme example of mercy is the coming of God in Jesus Christ, inaugurating the new covenant. This new covenant is of the spirit rather than one fixed on the letter of the law. The new covenant finds its expression in forgiveness and in love. That love is oft expressed in compassion. When Jesus spoke of those we serve in his stead (Matthew 25: 40) it was those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, ill, imprisoned and strangers to whom he referred. What shall we bring as gifts to the Christ Child this year – shall we bring our prayers and fervent attempts to right circumstances which see our brothers and sisters living and dying in fear, desperation and disease? If we really do see the image of Jesus the Christ in all who are our sisters and brothers, no matter to which country or religion they belong, will we not offer them a cup of the water of everlasting life together with practical provisions for today? Or shall we theorize a little longer as to the limits to which our mercy and justice shall extend? What will the eyes of Jesus convey to us as we verbalize our greeting “Happy Birthday, Jesus”?
Rev. Vera I. Bourne of Lismore, N.S.W., Australia, served as Outreach Clergy at Christs Community Church.