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 crèche 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.

Matt McGarry, at 30, has enormous responsibilities that he wears lightly. The coordinator of programs for Catholic Relief Services in Afghanistan, he has mastered many trades. His organization focuses on programs for agriculture, water and education in places where the farms are very small, the water is often dirty, and children, particularly girls, have never had the chance to go to school.

McGarry doesn’t think of himself as a saint, or even as anything special. “I don’t pretend that my life is too arduous or difficult,” he says. “I get to work with incredibly intelligent, committed people. I’ll definitely be up to this for a while.”

Catholic Relief is, of course, a faith-based organization, but what’s striking is that the faith of its employees is inherent in what they do, not something they wear on their sleeves. McGarry says his co-workers are not in the field to preach Christianity, even if the fact they are there bears witness to their faith. Indeed, in most Afghan villages, seeking converts among Muslims would be highly dangerous. The group consciously avoids preaching the Gospel, and its Afghan staff is overwhelmingly Muslim.

McGarry explains: “We’re not in the business of getting people into heaven. We’re in the business of getting them out of hell.” That would be “hell” in the earthly sense, and it has a very specific meaning in a country that has been ravaged by war for three decades.

Those who undertake the sort of work McGarry does are inevitably seen as idealists, but their passions are invested in highly practical undertakings — how to staff a school and protect its children, how to dig wells, how to improve production on small family farms, how to form cooperatives, how to market crops.

Underlying much of his group’s work, McGarry says, is a concern for improving the status of women, both by empowering them in the economy and by offering them educational opportunities they were denied in the past.

He is struck, above all, by the passion of Afghan parents for the education of their children. When a threat arose to one of Catholic Relief’s schools, the villagers were indignant. “Nobody’s closing our school,” they told McGarry. “We don’t care if they kill us. We don’t care if they kill our children.” The threat was dealt with, and the school reopened.

It is strange how a faith that traces its origins to a stable, preaches love and demands good works is so often invoked to condemn, to divide and to denounce. “We tend to forget that charity comes first,” wrote Thomas Merton, the inspiring monk who died 40 years ago this month, “and is the only Christian ’cause’ that has the right to precedence over every other.”

McGarry and his co-workers understand those words, and live by them. They represent, I suspect, what St. Francis had in mind 800 years ago when he built his manger.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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