There has really only been one event in the history of mankind that created such an utter watershed that it not only altered the trajectory of everything going on at the time, but everything that has happened since then and continues to happen today.
The birth of Christ in an animal stall in a rural town in a backwater little country of the Roman Empire ultimately changed attitudes on the equal value of every life, the interactions among all men, the role of religion, the treatment of women and children, modern science and the introduction of little known or used concepts such as forgiveness and humility as actual virtues, as opposed to weaknesses.
The spread of Christianity through peaceful, humble means throughout the Roman Empire was unlike other religions that coerced adherence and offered power and status in return for faithfulness. For Christians, all that conversion offered was persecution and second-class status. Yet it spread like wildfire until it was decriminalized in 313 by Constantine as it had become the dominant religion. It later became the official religion of the Empire. In 325, Constantine summoned the First Council of Nicaea, laying the groundwork for a unified view of the God-Head Trinity that eventually unified much of Christendom.
Christianity swept through Europe. Whenever it meshed with the power structure of government, it became corrupted — not surprisingly as Jesus specifically said his Kingdom is not of this world. It was abused many times in history for personal gain by individuals. But Christianity as a whole created the framework for everything from modern science to working capitalism in free markets to the foundations of America based on concepts from individual liberty and limiting government infringing on religion to capitalism’s raging success.
As Americans who are learning less and less history take much of this for granted, as though it always has been and, more dangerously, always will be, we need to look at a few of the titanic changes that Christianity brought — starting with a radically changed view of the individual person. Jesus showed irrefutably that there is inherent value in every person — Caesar and slave, man and woman, Jew and Gentile, black and white.
Christmas brought the value of all people, including women and children
In the ancient world when Christ was born, children were culturally seen as a possession to help in the fields or the shop. It was not unusual for them to be left to die from the elements if there was any inherent weakness in them — or if they were female, as males were more highly esteemed. They were often sold into slavery, sometimes by parents but more often by raiders or conquerors, and the cultures including Rome accepted this arrangement.
Jesus did not. He was tenderhearted toward children. He said, “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” He is pictured in the Bible as taking great joy in them as human beings, as individuals — not as burdens.
It was later based on the teachings of Jesus through missionaries — when Christianity was being spread throughout the world and far beyond the Roman Empire — that selling children and killing them for weaknesses was outlawed. It was Christians who launched the widespread use of orphanages to care for and bring up parentless children, something almost unheard of in the ancient world.
There is a similar trajectory for the treatment of women, who were often considered either chattel or second-class citizens. It was rule of the strong, and men were stronger.
But the teachings of Jesus again revolutionized this attitude. Consider the story of the adulteress caught in the act who was about to be stoned for committing adultery. But Jesus stopped those who were going to stone her to death, putting this to them: “Let you who are without sin cast the first stone at her.” They all dropped their stones and walked away. And Jesus let her go her way, telling her to “sin no more.”
This was a clear act of putting men and women on an equal footing before God. All have sinned. All have fallen short. Later in the New Testament, Paul wrote to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Christmas brought widespread compassionate care
The poor, the sick, the infirm were frowned on in the ancient world. They were a burden and often allowed to meet their own ends without mercy. But Jesus specifically spoke of the requirement to take care of those in need.
In the parable of the sheep and the goats, he called to his followers, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’” This confused the listeners, and they asked when they had done these things. He answered: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Jesus equated helping the hungry, the thirsty, the lonely, the naked, the imprisoned — those much less fortunate — with helping him, God himself. Now that was a revolutionary thought and requirement.
It spawned an immense movement over the millennia from orphanages to hospitals to soup kitchens to the Red Cross and thousands of others built on this Christian principle. This was alien to the ancient world, but we accept it today as the way things should be. That’s because the birth of Christ happened.
Christmas brought the idea of radical forgiveness
In the ancient world, the rules were again based on the powerful. Friends and allies were rewarded. Enemies were punished mercilessly. Genghis Khan infamously said the best thing in life was crushing enemies and hearing the wails of their women. As abhorrent as that is to our ears, it was hardly unusual in that age.
It was not an “eye for an eye,” but more of a family for an eye. Those who wronged you were hated and if at all possible, revenge was to be taken upon them.
But again…Jesus. He went full radical with the Sermon on the Mount, where he said to love our enemies and reconcile with them.
Jesus said: “If you forgive others the wrongs they have done to you, your Father in heaven will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive the wrongs you have done.” That’s a very high bar, but Jesus keeps at it. Peter wanted to know just how much forgiveness was required. “’Lord, if my brother keeps on sinning against me, how many times do I have to forgive him? Seven times?’ ‘No, not seven times,’ answered Jesus, ‘but seventy times seven…'”
Even hanging from nails on the cross after his torture, Jesus said: “Forgive them, Father! They don’t know what they are doing.”
And so we get forgiveness, compassion, the value of every human life and a world transformed by the teachings of one man — who was also God — born in a trough to change the relationship between man and God forever.
And that’s why Christmas matters. And that is totally apart from the actual spiritual reality of Jesus dying for the sins of all mankind to reconcile us to God. There is simply nothing in history that is as measurably earth-shattering as the birth of Christ. And it is that birth we are commemorating and celebrating.
Rod Thomson is an author, TV talking head and former journalist, and is Founder of The Revolutionary Act.
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