Written by Geoff Warne, CEO of the International Federation of Anti-Leprosy Associations.
In the early 1980s my wife Karen and I spent two Christmas seasons in Kathmandu, Nepal. The weather was predictable: bright sunshine by afternoon, so we could enjoy the Christmas festivities on our house’s flat roof with friends and family. One year, just before Christmas, we went up to Anandaban Leprosy Hospital, about an hour away. I’m sure there was excellent dal bhat for lunch, but my clearest memory of that day is the nativity play. A star pulled along a wire between pine trees; kings or wise men dressed in bright colours (rangi changi); and – especially – real shepherds with their sheep or goats, who’d been brought in from a nearby village and looked rather bemused at the situation.
Somehow the genuineness of the shepherds made the whole event come alive. Much more so than a nativity play, years later, in which I horrifically overacted the role of one of the three kings. No, the outdoor setting in Nepal, the authentic shepherds, and the hundred or so leprosy patients who were watching – many of them among the poorest of the poor – felt much closer to the actual history we were commemorating.
Because Christmas, for many of us, involves money and expense (catering, gifts, decorations – the shops here in Geneva are full of them) it’s easy to forget that Jesus was born into poverty. There were shepherds, who didn’t have a home to go to. The birth itself was in a stable: dark, dirty, smelly, animals milling around. In the Bible account, that reads a bit like bad luck: the parents arrived too late for a room, sorry, the animal shed is all that’s left. But is that all there is? No, there is something deeper going on, something intentional, about wealth and poverty and about power and powerlessness.
One clue to this is a song that Mary, Jesus’ mother, sang a few months before the birth. It’s recorded for us in Luke’s first chapter. Mary seems politically and socially aware. I’m guessing she gets that from a combination of listening attentively to the scriptures being read, her own reasoning ability, and divine revelation. She identifies herself among the powerless, ‘a lowly servant-girl’ in whom God is doing something amazing. That perhaps is understandable, but what comes next is a striking interpretation of what God is doing in the world. Mary sings that God scatters those who are proud. He drags strong rulers from their thrones and puts humble people in places of power. He gives the hungry good things to eat and sends the rich away with nothing.
In other words, a remarkable inversion of the way things were. The ordinary assumptions about power and wealth are turned upside down. And when we look at the life of Jesus we see that he keeps doing that. When his disciples are vying for position, he dresses like a slave and washes their feet. When they want Jesus’ definition of greatness, he calls a small child across and tells them ‘you need to be like this’. When a highly educated, influential leader comes to talk, Jesus interrupts with ‘you need to be born again’ – in one sentence sweeping away all that Nicodemus felt was important. When a godly, sincere, wealthy man comes to Jesus for a spiritual check-up, he’s told to give his money away. When people with leprosy encounter Jesus he stops, touches and attends to them, knowing full well that in his society, these are outcasts and he’s now socially unacceptable through his contact with them.
This Christmas I want to dwell more on God’s overturning of the way things are. I think of John’s astonishing vision, in the book of Revelation, of the throne in heaven, the place of ultimate power. Sitting there was a lamb which, he says, looked like it had been slaughtered. An image, of course, of Jesus’ death on behalf of a damaged, sinful world – but can we imagine any greater inversion than that? It’s a mystery, but it’s also just as Mary understood it. So I’m asking God to deepen my understanding, too, of the fundamental upside-down-ness of his ways when compared with the assumptions of our world today.
Geoff Warne is CEO of ILEP, the International Federation of Anti-Leprosy Associations. He was General Director of The Leprosy Mission International from 2006 to 2016 and has been involved with The Leprosy Mission since 1981.