At the center of this day is a story that somehow survives the tumult of time -- and is best told for and amid the poor.
We have two versions of the story, in fact, each invaluable. The first comes from Matthew. Counting down the years of history, through generations of Hebrew patriarchs and kings, Matthew tells us of the birth of a virgin's child whose name will be Emmanuel -- God with us. He contrasts the worship offered the infant Jesus by wise men from the East with the perfidy of Herod, the Judean King, whose sole interest is the maintenance of his own position. The gifts offered the babe under the star are thus symbols of grace recognized rather than power imposed. And the whole story figures for us the fulfillment of God's faithfulness.
Luke, whose narrative is even more artfully constructed, recounts first how the births of John the Baptist and Jesus were announced. His special sense of divine condescension and compassion enfolds the episode of Mary's visit to her cousin Elizabeth, before John's birth to the older woman. When Jesus is born in Bethlehem at the time of Caesar Augustus's census, we hear of circumstances remarkable for their simplicity: lodging in a manger for want of room elsewhere, shepherds as the first witnesses of God's glory, the subsequent circumcision and presentation in the Temple such as would be expected from any observant Jewish parents. For Luke the birth of the Savior could not be more intimately embedded in the ordinary circumstances of time. His theme is the centering of history in the reign of mercy, represented by Jesus as both the child of Mary and the child of God.
The Christmas story, indeed, is told for all of us who know our poverty -- and for all times that are poor. For peace or war, prosperity or adversity, harmony or conflict, this is an ageless tale of reconciliation inaugurated for the estranged, forgiveness offered to those who are turned in on themselves, a home begun in this world for all who feel homeless in it. The more we feel our poverty, the more we may hear the story again with hearts of hope. The more we have cared for the poor around us, the more we may realize how much our shared humanity needs the simplicity of this day.
For this is the day when God's own eternal, everlasting, glorious Word took life in a small human child -- an infant, in fact, entirely speechless. All our hope for peace, every gift we give, our best effort to effect reconciliation at home and abroad are called today to let their best meaning grow again from such simplicity. In a poor Christmas.
The writer is president of Georgetown University.