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The challenge of Christmas
Despite the extent to which it has been secularised in the contemporary world, Christmas is still the occasion on which people everywhere - even in non-Christian countries such as Japan - celebrate the great virtues of fellowship, of family, of giving.
Christmas marks an apparently insignificant event which took place in one of the more obscure corners of the mighty Roman Empire some 2,000 years ago: the birth of a baby boy, Jesus. What made this event unique was that Jesus, through his teachings and the Church he founded, would transform the world.
The Gospels provide the only near contemporary record of this event.
St Luke tells us that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was born in a stable, because there was no room for his parents at the inn in Bethlehem. His parents, who came from Nazareth, some distance away, went to Bethlehem on the order of the Roman Governor Quirinius who was conducting the first census - no doubt, as Malcolm Muggeridge has observed, to raise more taxes.
In this way, the secular world intruded even into the first Chrismas day.
The Gospel recounts that its religious significance was made known by a host of Angels who appeared to shepherds - among the lowest occupations - telling them of this wondrous event, and urging them to pay homage to the newborn baby who was the long-awaited Messiah.
With the arrival of the mysterious Magi a short time later, which we now celebrate as the Epiphany, these men from the East became the first gentiles to pay homage to Jesus, and therefore represent us at Jesus' cradle.
Unwittingly, by asking directions from King Herod, the Magi unleashed Herod's ferocious rage, for as St Matthew tells us, he ordered the massacre of all baby boys in the area, in an unsuccessful effort to destroy a potential rival. These babies, the Holy Innocents, have been revered as the first Christian martyrs for around 1,500 years.
So, as we think about these events, we see how the secular and religious features of Christ's birth have always been interwoven. The challenge for us is to ensure that Christmas is not emptied of its spiritual essence.
Peter Westmore is Publisher of AD2000.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 16 No 11 (December 2003 - January 2004), p. 2
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