If there are young families in your neighborhood, you’ve probably seen some of the local children playing outdoors with their favorite Christmas gifts. You might wonder why they’re outdoors rather than inside, but the reason is obvious. The outdoor play is a way of proclaiming their standing as recipients of valued gifts.
Last year, in the neighborhood where the rectory is located, there was a young teenager riding a rechargeable, single-wheeled skateboard. For several weeks, he seemed to derive great joy from riding his new gadget at high speeds through the neighborhood. He was clearly proud of his new status symbol.
Adults have many status symbols of their own. Automobiles, zip codes, professional titles, and the like are proudly paraded in front of others in the same way the young teen on the too-fast toy paraded his favorite Christmas gift last year. Status symbols were popular in the ancient world, as well. Two ancient status symbols figure prominently in today’s Gospel reading.
The infancy narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are so familiar to us that we tend to accept them as conventional and normal. In the ancient world, however, infancy narratives were status symbols reserved for the wealthiest and most powerful members of society. For example, when Gaius, the son of the Roman Imperial Army General Germanicus, became Emperor, his admirers publicized an infancy narrative about him. According to the infancy narrative composed for the new Emperor, he was a precocious child who marched among his father’s troops, giving orders and modelling bravery in the manner his father did.
Jesus’ infancy narrative in Luke’s Gospel draws its inspirations from ancient infancy narratives, but it is hardly conventional or normal. There is no mention of privileged surroundings or famous persons in Jesus’ infancy narrative. Rather, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is placed in a manger for feeding animals and attended by shepherds.
The Gospel says that the shepherds were “glorifying and praising God.” (Lk 1:20) The second major status symbol associated with Jesus in this reading is given an unconventional meaning, as well. Shepherds, who were among the least respected groups of people at the time, brought attention to Jesus’ “glory.”
In the ancient world, the word “glory” was used to refer to the fame gained by a king or general who defeated a powerful foe in battle. Jesus’ glory was something quite different from the norm. As with most status symbols, the Gospel author’s attribution of status symbols to Jesus was for the purpose of proclaiming Jesus’ fame. These status symbols, however, did not proclaim superiority over other people but rather love for all people.
A couple of weeks ago, the Gospel reading used St. Joseph as an example of what it takes to be a good person. Joseph wanted to do the right thing at all times. When faced with the conflicting demands of his religion and his care for Mary, Joseph found a way to do right by God as well as the people in his life.
In today’s Gospel reading, Mary reflects meditatively about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. (Lk 2:19) She did not use her status of Mother of God to make herself the center of attention; rather, she made God’s will the center of her life.
The examples of Joseph and Mary show us how to accomplish fully Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as ourselves. To love others in the way that God loves us is to choose to see ourselves as having the same status as all others. Joseph did not set his personal desires above Mary’s need for safety. Mary did not set herself above the humble shepherds who came to see the newborn Jesus. In the Incarnation, God did not set God’s self above the spiritual poverty of human nature.
To love all people as we love ourselves is to do just this: to acknowledge that all are equal in God’s eyes because, in God’s eyes, all are worthy of love.
There might have been times during the Christmas holidays when you struggled to love, or even to be civil to, people around you. There will certainly be times during the coming year when loving certain people will seem a near impossible task. Jesus’ commandment of universal love is fully within each person’s ability to accomplish. It requires no more than being mindful of the fact that all of us are in need of God’s love and all are loved by God, that is to say, all of us share the same status as sinful but beloved.
In the Incarnation, God adopted the humble status of our human nature so that we could adopt God’s love of human nature. This is the blessed status of God’s People: we are called to be visible signs of God’s love for the world. This year let’s do precisely and fully what Jesus commands: to proclaim humanity’s status as beloved of God.