E.J. Dionne: The Jesus Of Christmas And The Holiday's True Meaning

Roundup: Talking About History

Each era depicts Jesus in its own characteristic way, and the late historian Jaroslav Pelikan wove a brilliant book around this theme. He traced images of Jesus from the earliest days of Christianity as "the rabbi" and "the king of kings" to more modern portrayals as "the teacher of common sense," "the poet of the spirit" and "the liberator."

The Jesus of Christmas, Pelikan tells us in "Jesus Through the Centuries," owes a particular debt to St. Francis of Assisi, who preached "a new and deeper awareness of the humanity of Christ, as disclosed in his nativity and in his sufferings."

It was St. Francis who, in 1223, set up the first creche in the Umbrian village of Greccio, depicting Christ's infancy in the rather less-than-regal circumstances of the manger. St. Francis founded a religious order that stressed liberation from the tyranny of material possessions and, Pelikan notes, the role of Christians as "strangers and pilgrims in this world."

The world is still blessed with many actual Franciscans. But in our time, there is another community of "strangers and pilgrims" whose satisfaction comes not from accumulating material goods or political power.

They are the relief workers and community builders lending their energy to the poorest people in villages and urban slums scattered around the globe.

Many of them are motivated by their religious faith, others by a humanistic devotion to service, but few who are in the trenches worry much about what their co-workers believe about an Almighty. These souls are among the happiest and most personally satisfied people I've encountered, suggesting that St. Francis was on to something in preaching freedom from materialism....

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