It is the beginning of the third millennium of the Christian era. The Roman legions once garrisoned in Palestine long ago returned to dust. But the passing of scores of generations of common people and of hundreds of kings and tyrants and presidents has made remarkably little difference in the physical lives of most humans who walk this planet.
Corners of the world live in unprecedented comfort and wealth, but the poor and the refugees of war still are haunted by pestilence and famine. The benefits of modern medicine are extended to only a fraction of the human race. The quest for peace for all mankind is far from completed; it remains an elusive dream.
But in the passing of all this time, the symbolism of this day and the essential message of Christianity has not dimmed for men and women. Christians and non-Christians continue to hearken to the meaning of Christmas because it fills a deep place, a void, in every human being.
In history’s dark moments, courage and spirit have helped keep the flame of humanity alive, but even those qualities must feed on something. That something is hope — the belief that as bad as events may seem, salvation still is possible.
Peace and love remain universal aspirations. But hope and salvation are the tangible messages of this special day. They shine through the unadorned account of the first Christmas:
IN THOSE DAYS a decree was issued by the Emperor Augustus for a registration to be made throughout the Roman world. This was the first registration of its kind, it took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria. For this purpose everyone made his way to his own town; and so Joseph went up to Judea from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to register in the city of David, called Bethlehem, because he was of the house of David by descent; and with him went Mary who was betrothed to him. She was expecting a child and while they were there the time came for her baby to be born, and she gave birth to a son, her first born. She wrapped him in his swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them to lodge in the house.
Now in this same district there were shepherds out in the fields, keeping watch through the night over their flock, when suddenly there stood before them an angel of the Lord and the splendor of the Lord shone round them. They were terror-stricken, but the angel said, “Do not be afraid. I have good news for you: There is a great joy coming to the whole people. Today in the city of David a deliverer has been born to you — the Messiah, the Lord. And this is your sign: You will find a baby lying wrapped in his swaddling clothes in a manger.” All at once there was with the angel a great company of the heavenly host, singing the praises of God:
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth his peace for men on whom his favor rests.”
After the angels had left them and gone into heaven the shepherds said to one another, “Come, we must go straight to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with all speed and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby was lying in the manger. When they saw him, they recounted what they had been told about this child, and all who heard were astonished at what the shepherds said. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered over them. Meanwhile, the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for what they had heard and seen; it all happened as they had been told.
“The Coming of Christ”
The New English Bible