24th December 2000
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The crown jewels of Christmas

By Louis Benedict

After washing the feet of those who would betray, deny or desert him, the Lord Jesus gave a new commandment which forms the foundation and high point of Christian spirituality.

"Do you understand what I have just done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord and it is right that you do so, because that is what I am. If I your Lord and Teacher have just washed your feet then you should wash one another's feet. And now I give you a new commandment: love one another. Love one another as I loved you. By this all will know that you are my disciples- if you love one another as I love you" (John 13: 12- 14, 34-35).

Forgiving, merciful and humble feet-washing love is the heart of Christianity. Without it all else is dead. St. Paul projects it powerfully in the famous chapter 13 in his letter to the Corinthians: " I may be able to speak all the languages of men and even of angels, but if I have no love, my speech is no more than a noisy gong or a clanging bell.

I may have the gift of inspired preaching; I may have all knowledge and know all secrets; I may have faith needed to move mountains- but if I have no love, I am nothing. I may give away everything I have, and may give up my body to be burned- but if I have no love, this does me no good" (1 Cor 13: 1-3).

It's Christmas eve- the first Christmas of the millennium and a time of special anointing and blessing for the 'Christhu Jayanthi' amidst the traditional cribs and carols, cakes and crackers, the bells, the balloons and the bon-bons along with the buying spree this time on e-mail also.

I am inspired to share a story that challenges, disturbes and shakes the foundations that external ritualistic religion stands on.

We have heard and romanticised the story of the Three Wise Men who came from the east in search of the Messiah who will liberate the world from the original sin of self-centredness and self-interest.

Today we could quietly reflect on the parable of the "Fourth Wise Man" as told by a Jesuit priest Michael O' Brien. Let's call him Navaratne , though in parables it is not the name but the message that matters. Let's also presume he was from Sri Lanka though places don't matter either. Like many in Sri Lanka he had studied the stars and read ancient, learned books though hopefully he had no paranoia about horror-scopes.

From his studies and readings he learned about the new bright star, that was to appear in the sky as sign that the long awaited Liberator of the World had been born. Then one night he saw the star: 'The Liberator and King of Kings was Born'. Then came an urgent message from the other three wise men to join the camel caravan across the desert and go to Bethlehem. Fortunately in those days there was no Ariel sharon to provoke an uprising as we see today resulting in the cancellation of Christmas in Bethlehem.

Joyfully Navaratne set out on horseback to join the other three. He had almost reached his destination when his horse came to a sudden halt. There was a man lying on the road. If he stopped to help him he would be late and his friends might go without him. He stopped, helped the man on the road and saw to his needs. Shall we turn to the Gospel of St. Luke and meditate on Chapter 14: 25-37, the parable of the Good Samaritan. It may generally not be part of the scripture reading for the season but the practical dimension of the Christmas message reaches its highest peaks in this parable.

But then Navaratne's worst fears were realised: his friends had gone.

So he had to return to Sri Lanka sell the sapphire, one of the three jewels he was going to give the King and buy some camels, together with some provisions for the journey across the desert.

And so he arrived in Bethlehem three days after the other three. He inquired from a woman with a child in her arms. Yes, she had seen his companions, she had heard of the newly born King. But everything had happened very quickly; the baby and its parents had left in the middle of the night as had his companions. Navaratne groaned in anguish. Then came the noise of the approaching soldiers on horseback. Herod's soldiers! and they were snatching children from their mothers' arms (read Matthew 2: 13- 18). "Quick hide" said Navaratne. And then he faced the captain of the soldiers in the doorway of the house: " as you can see here for yourself there is no sound of a crying baby here. If you leave me in peace this jewel is yours". He gave the captain the splendid ruby- the second of the jewels he was going to give the king. So this little baby boy was saved-the only one in the town of Bethlehem. And then for Navaratne there followed 33 years of searching in Jerusalem, in Bethlehem, in Egypt and Alexandria. Nowhere could he find the King. But everywhere he went he did good: he helped those in need and in distress. And all the time he had with him the pearl- the last of the three jewels he was going to give to the King. Worn and weary, he came once more to Jerusalem: something told him that this time his search was to be rewarded. There was tumult on the streets of Jerusalem. It was what we revere today as Good Friday.

Navaratne was told " the man who called himself the 'King' was being led to be crucified in Golgotha, just outside the city. Navaratne trembled: was this to be his meeting with the King?, would his pearl be the ransom that would free the King from his enemies? God's ways would indeed have been strange!.

But before he could start making his way towards Golgotha his attention was caught by the sight of three soldiers who were dragging a young woman along the street. Navaratne looked towards the young woman with compassion and concern. Seeing him she broke away from the grasp of the soldiers and threw herself at his feet. "Help me Sir' she cried. "My father has died and I am being sold as a slave to pay the debts he left behind. Save me from a fate worse than death." Navaratne trembled. What was he to do? The King was so close and in great need of his help. But this young woman at his feet was even closer to him than the King and her need was great, very great. His decision was made: he placed the pearl in her hands.

" Here is your ransom: it was the last of the jewels I had kept for the King."

Then suddenly the sky grew dark almost as it were night and shuddering tremors ran through the earth, stones were loosened and crashed into the street. This was the darkness at noon and the earthquake at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus. The soldiers fled in terror, Navaratne and the girl looked on helplessly. Navaratne thought to himself "the quest is over and it has failed". But he felt a great sense of peace. He knew that somehow all was well because he had done the best he could from the day he began the search till today. He knew that even if he could live his earthly life over again, things could not have been otherwise than they had been. He knew in some strange way that every kind of thing in his life had been made well.

And then a heavy tile shaken from the roof fell and struck the old man on the temple. As the girl bent over him fearing that he was dead, there came a voice through the darkness, sweet, encouraging and immensely comforting. She could not hear the words but then the old man's lips moved as if in answer, and she heard him saying:

"Not so my Lord: when did I see you hungry and feed you? and thirsty and give you drink? when did I see you as a stranger and make you welcome? naked and clothe you? sick or in prison and go to see you? For thirty-three years I have looked for you; but I have never seen your face or ministered to my King". And then the sweet voice came again and now the girl could just hear the words very faintly, very far away and yet very close: "I tell you solemnly in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it to Me" (Matthew 25: 31-46). A calm radiance of wonder, joy and peace shone from the face of Navaratne. He gave one long last breath of relief; his journey was ended. His treasures had been accepted: the Fourth Wise Man had at long last met the King.

In this parable of the Fourth Wise Man, and in the parable of the Good Samaritan we see the virtues of unselfish love. Both the Fourth Wise Man and the Good Samaritan made huge sacrifices, took risks and faced dangers in going to the rescue of a stranger in distress.

They had the enlightenment and the third eye of faith to see God in a stranger who was in distress. They helped without expecting anything in return. In the Samaritan's parable the religious leaders who passed by the dying man and went to perform some rites took that decision after considering one key question: "If I go to help the dying man, what will happen to me?" The operative word was "me"- the decision was self-centred. But in the case of the Good Samaritan and the Fourth Wise Man the key question was:" if I don't help that person in distress what will happen to him or her". The focus had shifted from the self to the other person. Liberated and liberative love. The imagery of the person dying or in distress need not be confined to an individual. It could be an event, a situation or a battered dying country such as Sri Lanka. Are we passing by and going to indulge in some religous rites, while Christ is abandoned in the battlefronts of a terrible war and violence ?

May the crown jewels of Christmas, as seen in the parable of the Fourth Wise Man be our guiding star and light to a liberation where we will be ready to take risks or face dangers to restore peace by rescuing our country from the horrors of an unwinnable war.

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