IN the Gospel of Luke when the virgin Mary visits Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist, Elizabeth says that when she first heard Mary's voice John ``leaped in my womb for joy.''
That leap gives an idea of the true spirit of Christmas: joy at the coming of the Christ. As the hymn says of Bethlehem, ``The hopes and fears of all the years/ Are met in thee tonight.'' To Christians, no matter what the circumstances, the event at Bethlehem is always something to ``leap'' about. Its meaning never diminishes; it only grows.
Of course, the holidays offer plenty of opportunity to forget the main idea, or perhaps not to feel it. The season has an aggressive commercial life of its own: a roar of cash registers often intertwined with rituals or with family or emotional challenges. Much of this acculturated Christmas isn't what the original thing is about. To take a page from President Clinton, who said Martin Luther King Jr. would today be disappointed at developments in the civil rights movement, Jesus witnessing our holiday rush might wonder if anyone cared what his birth meant.
It's a humbling lesson. The experts felt Jesus would come as a king, a man with worldly power. Yet he was born in a stable, among mules, to parents of no standing, in a town far off the beaten track. He came not with armies and gold, but with mercy and justice. He conformed not to this world, but taught a higher one. He asked his followers to love their enemies, but drove the moneychangers out of the temple. Against custom he allowed women to be disciples and met with sinners. He healed disease. He asked for repentance - in exchange for the kingdom of heaven.
It is the old story. How often it is forgotten.
A colleague driving on a dark road from a holiday event last week felt lonely, depressed. Things weren't going the right way. On the radio, Christmas music was playing and she started humming, then singing, louder and louder, ``O Holy Night'' and ``Amazing Grace.'' It was a small thing. But her singing seemed a protest against layers of darkness. Like the shepherds who saw the angel at Bethlehem, she realized there was a song worth singing. In the car, she found Christmas another year: ``And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen.'' Some of them might even have leaped.