Washington, festooned in lights and greenery, bustles with the rest of America to prepare for the Christmas holidays. Stores are bulging with shoppers. Streets are clogged with cars rushing to diplomatic and other receptions: Government offices are holding Yule parties.
Behind the glittering lights of the season, however, are also quieter reflections -- the thoughts of those who are preparing to deliver the Christmas message and to solace and help lift a dispirited world.
From the pulpits of their churches, Christian clergy in the nation's capital this year will speak of the relevance of Christianity, of Christ's purpose for mankind, and of humanity's need for more compassion and love. While religious leaders are mindful of the violence, moral deterioration, and other challenges to mankind, many see signs of a new vigor in the Christian Church and a deepening search for a practical Christianity.
"The thrust of my sermon will be in terms of the 'light of the world,'" says the Rt. Rev. John T. Walker, bishop of Washington and dean of the National Cathedral. "'Arise and shine, for your light is come,' the Bible tells us. Christ came into a darkened place and helped us to see more clearly what our purposes are."
The Rev. Dr. Louis H. Evans Jr., pastor of the National Presbyterian Church, comments about the tempestuous political, social, and religious climate in which Jesus lived, a time when Rome had more troops in Judea than in any other part of the empire and when people were looking for a messiah.
"I will speak about Christ and his complete identification with the human race," Dr. Evans says. "God is sensitive to our human needs and He came in terms we could understand. Christ lived as a babe, he skinned his knees, he grew up in a land occupied by foreign soldiers, in the midst of a political caldron. His identification with us was complete.
"Christmas is not a euphoric, distant thing," he adds fervently, "but a real event that has relevance to our lives. The biblical characters are not pink gods out of heaven. They bled, were angry, got confused. Yet God still used them. And He transforms us, using us for the benefit of mankind."
Another church leader, the Rev. Dr. Edward W. Bauman of the Foundry Methodist Church, plans in a Christmas Eve television address to stress the theme of incarnation and the "good news" announced in Luke's Gospel -- the birth of God's Son.
"God has not given up on us," says Dr. Bauman in a statement prepared for the Monitor. "And He continues to come to us in Christ, and the fact that He does this gives us hope at a time when people are without hope.
"This gives us something to do," the statement goes on. "We are not to sit back and expect God to do it. It is a matter of living in obedience to God and showing compassion, justice, and love to others."
The relevance of the life of Christ to the present day will also be one focus of the sermon by the Rev. Dr. Samuel Hines of the Third Street Church of God. Dr. Hines says the Christian gospel "does not exist in a vacuum." The days of the Bible, he notes, were not the best of times politically, yet God interrupted the scene to "marke the good news."
"So whatever is happening, we must understand the situation and let it serve our purposes," Dr. Hines says. "God used politics -- the census that was taken for tax purposes -- to let His Son fit into prophecy. So there is no natural enmity between politics and prophecy -- it's a matter of understanding what the bridges are, so God's will becomes done."
How do the clergy assess today's spiritual condition and the strength of the Christian Church?
"What is happening in the world, and to us [America] particularly, is that our broken cisterns are running dry," says Dr. Hines. "We have realized that technology does not have the answer. We thought we could rationalize our way out of problems. We thought we had enough material power to lead the world. But the 'treasures' have proven earthy and temporal.
"We have made a mess of the world but this is bringing people back to God," continues the clergyman. "I get inquiries about God now from students and others who would never have asked in the past. So I see a new opportunity for the church to bring the good news."
Others, too, report more interest among young people in religious values, a turning to the church for answers, and greater efforts by the church to be more courageous and to preach a workable Christianity. Dr. Evans says it is shocking to see how many people have "gone down in moral confusion" and the rising number who are in real difficulty emotionally.
"At the same time, out of the morass some new questions are arising," says the minister. "I sense a new humility. People are coming back to church, but they do not want shallow, easy answers.They want something new and fresh with the ring of reality. Many do not want to slay dragons, but they want to know how. They want a happy but disciplined life."
Dr. Evans reports increasing involvement of his white parishioners with Washington's black community, including its churches. There is more ecumenism of a functional rather than organizational type, he says, with church groups working together for common purposes, each church keeping its identity but each being "part of the same body."
Dr. Hines suggests that consumerism is being "shaken to the foundation" and that his own church, which serves primarily the black community, is now more sensitive to the poor. Among other charitable works, it is feeding 325 needy people three times a week.
"The church is becoming a servant church," he says.
Bishop Walker says he sees a deepening concern in America's churches for the problems of peace in the world and a rising concern about offering direction to young people so they do not "drift into a moral morass." Despite the declining membership of many churches, he says, Christianity has survived the buffetings and is "in a stronger position than 25 years ago."
Today, stresses the Episcopalian church leader, the Christian Church must sharpen its organizational structures to focus on what it should do. "The church cannot praise God if it is silent in the face of hunger, injustice, war," Bishop Walker says."We praise God when we do the things that we have learned from our Lord."