As Christmas approaches, we inevitably think of our families and loved ones, and seek to embrace the spirit expressed most beautifully by the angelic host which appeared to shepherds who were living rough, out in the fields, on that first Christmas night.
St Luke described how an angel, surrounded by light, suddenly appeared to shepherds who were tending their flock, and they were filled with fear. The angel said, “Fear not, for I bring you tidings of great joy. Today, in the city of David [Bethlehem], is born a saviour who is Christ the Lord.”
And with this angel appeared “a multitude of the heavenly host”, who praised God saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to men of good will!”
The Nativity story is one of great joy for us too, but, like the first one, is also marked by sadness. We are aware of the irony that Jesus, the Son of God, should be born in a stable and laid in a manger, an animal feeding-trough, because there was “no room in the inn”.
The source of Luke’s information was apparently Jesus’ mother, the Virgin Mary, who, Luke says, “treasured all these things in her heart”.
St Matthew’s account of the Nativity recalls the terrible intervention of King Herod the Great after Jesus’ birth. Some have suspected Matthew’s account to be an exaggeration.
But from the perspective of King Herod, whose monuments are scattered throughout Israel to this day, the message of the magi who had come from distant lands in the east, probably Persia, was profoundly disturbing.
They asked him where the “king of the Jews” — whom Herod saw as a potential rival or successor to his throne — had been born; and was told by the chief priests that the coming Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
Herod’s paranoia was fuelled by the fact that the title, “King of the Jews”, had been given to him decades earlier by the Roman Senate, and he had already killed his own wife, his mother-in-law and three of his sons to prevent their claiming his throne.
According to Matthew, Herod ordered that all the male children in the region around Bethlehem be slaughtered. But Jesus’ stepfather, Joseph, had been warned in a dream to flee, and escaped with the child and his mother into Egypt.
As we celebrate Christmas, we should also reflect on those who are less fortunate than ourselves, materially and spiritually, in our own country and around the world.
Among those we should recall are Christians who are being persecuted and killed for no other reason than that they are followers of Jesus Christ. Despite all the advances in knowledge and civilisation, the persecution of Christians today is as pervasive as at any time in history.
In the communist nations of China, Vietnam, North Korea, Cuba and elsewhere, Christians are routinely persecuted for their religious beliefs. The Chinese regime recently ordered a crackdown on Christians in the province of Wenzhou, which saw the arrest and disappearance of priests and pastors, and the forced closure of dozens of churches and other places of worship.
In Pakistan, a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who got into a religious argument with a Muslim woman, was sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the prophet Mohammed, and has spent the last four years on death row. In India, it is now forbidden for Christians to build new churches.
Although the persecution of Christians is distressing, it arises because Christianity is rightly seen as an attractive alternative to repressive political ideologies or religious beliefs, and because Christians are admired (or feared) for living out their faith publicly.
In many parts of Asia, where historically Christianity was seen as alien and incompatible with local traditions, Christianity has been growing rapidly. The recent visit of Pope Francis to South Korea marked the fact that this nation has undergone a remarkable transition to Christianity over recent decades.
East Timor, which until the Indonesian occupation in 1975 was predominantly animist, is now overwhelmingly Christian, because of the role of the church in defence of human rights during the Indonesian occupation, as well as its spiritual role, and in the delivery of basic services such as education, health care and food production.
Even in China, where Christianity has endured over 60 years of persecution since Mao Zedong seized power in 1949, the situation seems to be changing. The Economist magazine recently reported: “Christianity is hard to control in China, and getting harder all the time. It is spreading rapidly, and infiltrating the party’s own ranks.
“The line is blurring between house churches and official ones, and Christians are starting to emerge from hiding to play a more active part in society. The Communist Party has to find a new way to deal with all this.”
Paradoxically, all this is happening at a time when secularism is pervasive in Western Europe, the United States and similar countries, including Australia.
Despite this, Christianity retains the capacity to inspire us to be better than we are, as we look in wonder at a crib containing a helpless baby who changed the world.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.