Though we live in a time when Christmas has been conquered by Santa Claus and Jeff Bezos, it might do us all some good to reconsider the ancient tale that started it all. There is a message in the Christmas story that we would do well to remember in these days of pervasive discouragement.

Set aside what you believe or do not believe about the story of Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem under a bright star; whether it is gospel truth or an old scrap of myth. Just consider the basic elements of the story.

At the heart of the tale is a pregnant teenage girl from a small town. She lives in a tiny country occupied by a remorseless imperial power and governed by a local autocrat so ruthless that he would order babies slaughtered to protect his grip on power. The girl and her working-class husband are forced by an imperial edict to travel to a distant locale. When they get there, they can find no lodging. As a last resort, they bunk down in a stable among the livestock, where the girl gives birth on a blanket stretched over a pile of straw.

It is not a very promising start for that baby. Nevertheless, his mother is convinced her son is special; that being born in a barn does not determine his future. And, of course, what we do know as historical fact is that the young woman’s child would prove to be one of the most consequential individuals to ever walk the planet.

This story of lowly beginnings has always held more resonance for the poor, the enslaved and the outsiders than for the power brokers and billionaires among us. It makes a bold claim: things may look bleak now, the bad guys might be in charge, the winners may lord it over the losers, but nothing is permanent; things will change, new ideas can sprout, hope is not futile.

A lot of people are feeling discouraged right now. On the local level, homelessness seems intractable. On the national scene, false prophets are selling big lies and undermining our democracy. In the international realm, autocrats in fancy suits – the heirs of Herod – seem to be flourishing. And, even as a resurgent pandemic circles the globe, the greater threat of climate change looms as an existential threat to humanity.

It can seem hopeless. Yet, in the gloomy, darkest days of the year, the Christmas story argues for hope. Human beings have gone through many dark eras. One way or another, we have found passages to brighter times. Hope does not guarantee we will succeed, but it gives us a reason to push on.

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