Jean Antoine-Dunne writes a weekly column for the Newsday.
I am re-reading the story of Christmas and I’m amazed at the significance of this narrative today.
Joseph and Mary left home so they could be counted in a census, and that fact allows us to consider the notion of belonging, both to a family and to its ancestry. In the Caribbean, one of the biggest problems that we face is a lack of that sense of history going back in time since, by and large, as a people we emerged through the processes of displacement, exile and dislocation and from several diasporas.
For many post-colonial thinkers, this is the origin of our inability to come to terms with who we are. Many of us cannot count fourteen generations.
The story of Christmas at its beginning also focuses on the idea of trust between a man and a woman, for we are told that Joseph was going to divorce Mary quietly since she was pregnant, and they had never “come together.” That he believed in her and in the prophecy that she would give birth to a saviour shows an enormous faith and trust between individuals that we perhaps need now more than ever in our crime-infested nation.
There is also an inherent message of respect for women in this story that we could heed at this moment in time when men are abusing women and killing them, often out of jealousy, on a regular basis.
The place of birth of the baby Jesus has a singular message as the numbers of refugees, asylum seekers and the homeless increase all over the world. Many commentators have pointed out that Mary and Joseph had no home on the night that Christ was born and that this speaks specifically to all nations at this time of crisis.
The fact that Jesus was born in a stable adds weight to the need for humility even as we grow in technological and scientific knowledge and power. It focuses our attention on the world of nature, the animals and the simplicity of a life threatened by growing affluence and waste and a disdain for the things that make up this earth.
When Jesus is born, his nativity is marked by a chorus of angels who direct shepherds to his cradle.
The angels announcing Christ’s birth speak to those among us whose innocence is threatened by those who see no reason for their existence, in particular those who are disabled and whose hearts are childlike in their lack of guile and who have been imaged as angels by painters over the centuries.
Of equal significance is the need for leadership that brings about this extraordinary event that we sing about in the words, “Hark the herald angels sing/ Glory to the newborn King!” and that is further signified in the bright star that guides the Magi. The fact that these kings follow the Christmas star teaches us that even the greatest among us need to have the humility to acknowledge truth and to go after that truth. However, the story of Herod’s intervention tells us that not all who are leaders should be followed.
After all, Herod asks the Magi to tell him where the baby has been born because he secretly wishes to harm him. We understand that not everyone who purports to be a leader is worthy of being heeded.
So there are both wonderful qualities and flaws of leadership and kingship in this story: the greed and fear of Herod is a flaw, but there is also the sterling attribute of wisdom displayed by the Magi who return home by a different route. Above all, there is the simplicity and humility of true born leaders signified in the humble trappings of the birth of Jesus.
The shepherds also speak to a deep, intrinsic and very contemporary need for leadership and for leaders who truly have the interest of those in their care and who watch out for them even when things go wrong.
The lambs that these shepherds guard point to the fact of the Christ’s impending martyrdom and sacrifice, but also that we should not be sheep and follow the herd. Sometimes we as individuals need to break from the herd to follow leaders who are speaking the truth and, in this way, point the way for others.