This Christmas, times continue to be hard for many. And that -- amid all the presents, parties and holiday gaiety -- is the real story of this mass we celebrate on the birth of Christ.
As I've reminded throughout the years, the real story isn't about a holiday; it is about a holy day. It's about two people summoned from their home and forced to travel to register so the Roman occupiers could count them. The couple had no place to stay. One brief look, and the innkeeper announced there was no room at the inn. Their baby was born in the cold, in a working barn, set in a rough manger on a straw floor.
Just as now, those weren't normal times. Roman occupation was harsh and oppressive. A great expectation arose among the poor and the oppressed. Prophets predicted that a mighty messiah would come -- a king of kings -- to free the oppressed. They expected a powerful warrior able to free his people with the force of the sword.
Wise men from the East saw a bright star in the sky and knew that the Messiah had come. They traveled far seeking to worship the new king. They met with Herod in Jerusalem on the way, telling him of their mission. Herod was disturbed and asked the Magi to report to him when they found the child. The Magi found the child and worshipped him. Warned in a dream, however, they avoided Herod and returned another way. Furious, Herod ordered the execution of all children 2 and under in Bethlehem. But an angel had warned the couple, and they fled to Egypt, immigrants without papers.
Why was the mighty Herod so fearful? The prophet Isaiah had predicted that a child would be born and he would "preach good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom for the captives." And the Gospel of Luke tells us, as a young man Jesus read from Isaiah and embraced his charge to "preach good news to the poor."
The birth of the Messiah foretold a transformation that rightly threatened the Roman governors, the moneychangers, the elites of the time. Everyone expected a mighty soldier. But the Messenger never lifted a sword or carried a shield, held an office or amassed a fortune, yet his Gospel transformed the world. He taught us the power of love and hope and charity.
Christmas should be a time when we hear this message. It is a time to take notice of the poor and the oppressed.
Christmas 2010 saw the United States fighting two wars on the other side of the world. The U.S. faced unemployment, homelessness, hunger -- and many Americans voiced doubts about our most cherished institutions.
This year, President Obama has ended the war in Iraq, and our service members are at long last returning home. Occupy Wall Street has opened the eyes of millions to the excesses of Wall Street. And Americans stood together to protect basic worker rights in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere.
We do have many blessings, and in small ways, some of us might be better off than last year. Yet, a great many stockings still hang empty this year. Christmas 2011 shows us there is still much to do. We have 49 million Americans in poverty, nearly one in two is low income or below. About 17 million children go hungry. Nearly 50 million have no health insurance. More than 24 million are in need of full-time work. Record numbers are in jail. The Army Times reports 18 veterans commit suicide every day.
This Christmas, let everyone take a moment for the real story. Let us take stock of how we treat the young in the dawn of life, the poor in the pit of life, the elderly in the dusk of life. The real gift wasn't the presents that the Wise Men brought; the real gift was the child wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger.
Merry Christmas, everybody.