CHRISTMAS is here again and with it the annual and generally valid warning that we not allow shopping and tinsel to overwhelm the day's real message. Yet given the wreckage and fears seen and felt in so many parts of the world today, it almost seems enough that the twinkling lights in the streets, the fragrant green wreaths, the umpteenth playing of "Jingle Bells" - the formal et ceteras of the season - stand as affirmations that some places, at least, are modestly safe and civilized.
Yet the real message of Christmas is much more beautiful, and radical. One doesn't necessarily have to be a Christian to marvel at it. The baby Jesus is born in obscurity. But in a few score years the power of his message, life, and works begins to shake the foundations of imperial Rome, eventually shaking that system to the ground.
This Christmas birth, not arranged by man, challenged and crossed swords with all the varied powers of the world. In this sense, it remains contemporary.
The world still has its share of usurping powers. The brutal power of the gun - not only in Yugoslavia, but in America - is obvious. What about subtler powers: The power of the bankbook to claim our happiness? The power of the bureaucracy to deaden? The power of position used for selfish ends? The power of the majority to dominate based on numbers rather than justice? The power of hate to manipulate and divide?
But the familiar circumstances and manner of the Christmas birth of Jesus offers evidence of a higher power, and a way, the world does not know. This child was born in a humble manger in the outlying town of Bethlehem. His parents had no special status; no special credentials accompany the child of a carpenter.
But there is a star. And shepherds - not the priestly class - witness angels singing in joy. Wise men from the East appear - not for ecumenical fellowship, but because they sense this star represents a new order of being breaking in upon the old worldly structures.
They were right. Christmas still speaks of a new and different power available to all who seek it in meekness and love. It still represents the true light of the world.