If religiosity offends you, perhaps you better not read any further. This is a Christmas column, with no apologies. I've been thinking a lot about religion lately, trying to understand what it is about Islam that motivates so many Muslims to want to kill those who do not share their beliefs. I've spent hours reading the Koran, and that, in turn, has prompted me to think more about the Bible -- the Old and the New Testament, especially the Gospels. And the more I think about it, the more in awe I am of what happened 2,000 ago, how the birth of a single child transformed the world.
The birth of Jesus of Nazareth could not have been more inauspicious. Forced by the Roman governor to participate in a census so that officials in Rome could levy taxes, His parents traveled to Bethlehem, a town far from their home, for His birth. There being no room at the inn, He was born in a hovel used to shelter animals and placed in a manger to keep warm. When He was still an infant, He fled with His parents to Egypt, to avoid the slaughter of all male children under 2 years of age ordered by King Herod, who feared that a Jewish child had been born in Bethlehem who would one day challenge his rule. Jesus, Mary and Joseph returned to Nazareth after Herod died, and the Boy led a quiet, uneventful life, becoming a carpenter, like Joseph.
He spent only three years in public life, preaching, tending to the sick, caring for the poor, gathering round Him an odd assortment of men -- and women -- fishermen, prostitutes, housewives. He spoke well of Samaritans, a group much reviled by the Jews of His time, and of tax collectors, enjoining His followers to "render, therefore, to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God, the things that are God's." He spoke out against revenge, "if someone strike thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would go to law with thee and take thy tunic, let him take thy cloak as well; and whoever forces thee to go for one mile, go with him two."
He urged His followers to be observant in their religious duties, but not to be "like the hypocrites, who love to pray standing in the synagogues and at the street corners, in order that they may be seen by men." Rather, He instructed: "Go into thy room, and closing thy door, pray to thy Father in secret; and thy Father, who sees in secret, will reward thee."
Jesus abhorred sin, but loved sinners, recognizing that all men are frail and easily led astray. When the Pharisees, a group of learned and pious Jews, tested Jesus by bringing to Him a woman who had been caught in adultery, saying "in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such persons. What, therefore, dost thou say?" Jesus replied: "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone at her."
Jesus' message was one of forgiveness and redemption: "Go thy way, and from now on sin no more." He made redemption possible -- by His words and His deeds, giving His life to expiate the sins of all men.
Jesus did not become King of the Jews, as some feared. He did not seek to lead armies or rule nations, but His life revolutionized the history of the world. His ethics -- of forgiveness, tolerance and universal redemption -- advanced the concept of justice, previously rooted in the dictum of "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." He taught us to love, not only our neighbors as ourselves, but "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you, pray for those who calumniate you."
The world is a better place -- not just for believers, but un-believers as well -- because Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem that day so long ago.