Father Joseph was an eccentric priest, according to his parishioners. His best friend was Thomas, an atheist. People loved him, nevertheless, because he cared for them with the tenderness of a shepherd who knew every one of his sheep by name.
Yet another Christmas came and the very active parishioners were in the church building the crib.
“Is it because Jesus taught us to care more for the lost sheep that you love Thomas so much?” Chandy asked Father Joseph while they were working on the crib.
“Whoever said that Doctor Thomas was lost?” wondered Father Joseph. Thomas the atheist was a doctor who gave free treatment to patients who could not afford to pay consultation fees. People used his services but hated him merely for being an atheist.
“He’s an atheist,” said Chandy.
“Why should atheists be counted as lost?” countered Father Joseph. “Many of the atheists are far better human beings than orthodox Christians.”
“But you are a priest of the Church and it’s your duty to bring people back to the faith,” insisted Chandy.
Father Joseph looked into Chandy’s eyes with his usual charming but penetrating smile. “What’s more important: faith or integrity?”
Chandy did not answer. It was as tricky a question as the one put to the law-abiding Jews by Jesus: “Who among you won’t flout the Sabbath rule if your son falls into a pit?” Rules are made for man and not vice-versa, Jesus argued. It applies to religion as well, Father Joseph used to say. If your religion does not help you to lead a good human life, discard the religion and find your own way. That was his view.
“Peace is against the Word of God,” said the American televangelist James Robinson in many of his TV sermons. Even a nuclear catastrophe is justified if it can rid the world of the evil forces, argued Robinson substantiating his view with a Biblical quote. 2 Peter 3:10 says, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up.” Robinson argued that the catastrophe would destroy evil and that the true believers would be “raptured” before that.
People like Robinson were gathering more followers. Father Joseph was aware of a youth organisation formed in his parish by certain young men who wished radical changes in the society. They wanted to eradicate drinking (Kerala was the largest consumer of alcohol among all the states in India), premarital sex, excessive use of the electronic gadgets, and so many other “evils”. Father Joseph was aware of one such group framing charges against him too. Soon they would present a memorandum to the Bishop to have him defrocked for his anti-Christian views and practices such as befriending atheists and being compassionate towards alcoholics and such people.
“Is Christmas relevant today?” Father Joseph was preparing his Christmas sermon. What would Jesus do if he were to appear in today’s world? Would he point a finger at the televangelists and their followers calling them hypocrites?
The crib was finally ready to receive the infant Jesus. The stars were hung. The decorations looked fascinating. A lot of glitter and shimmer. A clay figure of the infant Jesus would be placed in the centre of the crib in the midnight by Father Joseph during the Christmas Mass. The faithful would sing hymns and recite prayers, and then go home and celebrate Christmas in their own ways, with good food and drinks or whatever. Jesus would remain a clay statue in the crib, waiting for Judas to come with the custodians of the law.