An internally displaced civilian, Muhammad Aziz, takes care of his new born baby boy Azb Khan at a makeshift refugee camp in Bannu. PHOTO: AFP
Preparing this week to speak at our bilingual / ecumenical Christmas celebration on Sunday, I’ve been struck by two slightly random thoughts. The first is that there is only one baby Jesus. The second is that there is no direct translation into French of the world kindness.
Why does it matter that there is only one Jesus? Because there isn’t a French Jesus and an English Jesus. We don’t celebrate the birth of the three distinct Jesus’s of the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christmases. Nor is there a different Jesus for Arabs than for Africans; for refugees than for the rich. There is one Jesus. One incarnation of God embracing humanity – all of it. When we confess that Jesus is both human and divine we are making a dual claim – that there is one God, and that there is one humanity. The second is as important as the first: the coming of Christ puts to death for all time the notion of a God-endorsed tribalism. God only has one family, and human beings are it. If Christmas is a baby shower for Jesus, attendance requires of us that we acknowledge all his relatives!
What does this have to do with language? “La gentillesse” is a beautiful word. The most direct French translation for the term “kindness”, it speaks of grace and gentleness; a softness of heart. What it doesn’t quite carry, though, is the original sense of the Anglo-Saxon. Kindness in English is related to “kind” as in type or genus and to “kin” as in family. I am kind to you when I acknowledge that I am kin to you. We don’t tend to mean it that way, but that is where the word comes from. The German “kinder” for a child, as in kindergarten, comes from the same root.
To express kindness is to acknowledge commonality. Every act of kindness is an act of humanity. The best translation for this into French would be “humanité” or “solidarité”, both if which are significant concepts in French culture.
The birth of Jesus inaugurates a kingdom of kindness. It asks us to acknowledge that, created by the one God, we are one family. Every act that celebrates our shared humanity makes room for this kingdom. According to Jesus even a cup of cold water – the minimum demand of hospitality for a stranger – is a building block in the kingdom of kindness.