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 a part of the message of Christianity has not dimmed for men and women. Christian and non-Christian continue to harken 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, and 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 message of this special day. They shine through the unadorned account of the first Christmas:
In those days, Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.
But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
— Luke, Chapter 2, verses 1-16, New International Version