Under our Christmas trees, among the multitude of conspicuous gifts, we usually have a nativity scene. The baby Jesus rests comfortably in a crib, while angelic cows gaze upon the miracle. The proud parents (Mary and Joseph) survey the sanitary scene as kings and peasants come to worship.
Yet, if we accept the reliability of the Gospels, then Jesus was born in a barn, full of manure from those “angelic cows” and the flies attracted to most stables.
A manger was either a wooden box or a hole on the cave wall from where horses and cattle ate. Like a barn animal, Mary was forced to give birth amid unsanitary conditions.
Jesus physically entered this world as if he were homeless. This fact is not lost on the poor of the earth, who recognize God’s solidarity with them, as articulated in the songs slaves sung: “Poor little Jesus boy, Made him to be born in a manger, World treated him so mean, Treats me mean too….”
Who then is this Jesus whose birthday we celebrate on the 25th? The Bible tells us that although divine, he became human, assuming the condition of a slave.
According Paul: “[Jesus], who subsisting in the form of God thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, in the likeness of humans, and being found in the fashion of a human, he humbled himself (Phil 2:6-8).”
The radicalness of the Incarnation is not so much that the Creator of the universe became human, but rather that God chose to become poor, to take the form of a slave. Jesus willingly assumed the role of the ultra-disenfranchised. He was born into, lived and died in poverty.
To understand Jesus from the social location of the poor is to create a sacred space where the marginalized can grapple with their spiritual need to reconcile their God with their struggle for justice and dignity.
For many who read the Bible from the margins, Jesus’ poverty is attested by the sacrifice offered by his parents at his birth. According to Luke, “And when the days of [Mary’s] cleansing were fulfilled according to the Law of Moses … [they] offered a sacrifice according to the Law, a pair of turtle doves, or two young pigeons ” (2:22-24).
The law as stated in Leviticus required her to offer a lamb for her child, however, if she could not afford one, then the sacrifice would be two turtle doves or two young pigeons. Mary made use of the offering of the poor.
Jesus’ poverty was not limited to his birth. Jesus lived the life of an itinerant preacher, a life marked by privation. Referring to himself, Jesus would say, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the heaven nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head (Lk 9:58).”
He wandered throughout Judea without money in his purse. Several incidents indicating Jesus’ lack of funds are recorded in the biblical text.
For example when questioned if he paid the drachmas (Temple tax), Jesus instructed Peter to find the necessary funds to pay the tax in the mouth of the first fish Peter hooked (Mt17:22-27).
Or when asked if one should pay tribute to Caesar, Jesus asked to be shown a tribute coin rather than producing one himself (Lk 20:20-26).
In order to survive financially, Jesus relied on the charity of others. “He traveled through every city and village … and the twelve were with him, also certain women … who were ministering to him of their possessions (Lk 8:1-3).”
Then, too, Jesus came from the uncelebrated region of Galilee. Nazareth is so insignificant to the religious life of Judaism that the Hebrew Bible never mentions it. To come from Galilee was considered by most in Jerusalem as being uncouth.
The people of Jesus’ time had such a low opinion of this provincial region that, according to John, when the multitudes discovered Jesus’ origins they exclaimed before abandoning him, “Are you not also from Galilee? Search the Scriptures and see that no prophet out of Galilee has been raised (7:52-53).”
John also gives us the example of Nathaniel, one of Jesus’ future disciples, who upon learning Jesus was from Nazareth showed his contempt by saying, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth (1:46)?”
Can any good thing come out of the ghetto, the “hood,” or the barrio? Jesus came from the impure and mixed neighborhood of his time. No decent, respectable member of the dominant culture comes from those types of neighborhoods.
Indeed, Jesus knows what it means to come from the “wrong side of the tracks”! Because he experienced the cultural bias of being from the margins of society, oppressed and poor people including those of color, are able to find solidarity with their God.
Now let’s return to our Christmas tree with the plastic manger scene surrounded by gifts that put us in great debt to give to people who probably do not need them. How do we reconcile these gifts and the manger scene?
Miguel De La Torre, a Cuban American, is professor of theologies of liberation at Hope College in Holland, Mich. He is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a former Baptist pastor in Kentucky. His column also appears in the Holland Sentinel.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, and a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.