To hear the angels sing

2008 took many folks down a notch. All the better to hear the Christmas message.

More than 2,000 years old, the Christmas story still rings with relevance. The world is clearly in need of peace and goodwill. And in a year in which the mighty have fallen – from the mighty US housing market to those who stoked it to excess – the humble circumstances of Jesus' birth take on special meaning.

J. B. Phillips, a 20th-century biblical translator, wrote of the birth as an "almost beggarly beginning [that] has been romanticized by artists and poets throughout the centuries." At least once a year, he cautioned, the "sober" aspects must be remembered: no room at the inn; no one willing to give up a bed for a pregnant woman.

And not just the conditions were lowly. So were the participants. Deep humility allowed Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men to proceed as bidden. Only when the world in stillness lay – when human intellect and concerns went quiet – was it possible "to hear the angels sing," as the popular Christmas carol puts it.

A prideful heart makes for a deaf ear, and in recent years, hubris has raised an awful racket, ending 2008 in a din.

In the US, a rapacious rush to riches on Wall Street (and, yes, also Main Street) drowned out warnings of risky investments, unaffordable mortgages, and too much credit card debt.

In Russia, a powerful president, facing the end of his term, simply transferred his rule to a new job as prime minister. He then exercised his muscles in Georgia, whose leader is no shrinking violet himself.

In Zimbabwe, longtime strongman Robert Mugabe has citizens on their knees – literally – as disease and hunger savage people. Rejected at the polls, he refuses to go or to deal fairly with his opposition. "Zimbabwe is mine," he says.

He could learn from Kenya, whose leaders this year put enough self-interest aside to end political violence and begin sharing power.

Other humble voices have spoken – in selfless heroism during China's massive earthquake, in the dedication of Olympiads, in a lessening of violence in Iraq, and in a world more ready to act together to solve the economic crisis and global warming. Hillary Clinton's gracious exit from the primaries set a standard.

Service to others is becoming the signature of American young people. Teach for America, which sends college grads into the worst urban schools for humble pay, offers fewer than 5,000 slots, but had more than 14,000 applicants this year.

Charitable giving on the Internet is taking wing. And it's cheering to hear of companies skipping the annual holiday party and instead donating to food pantries.

On the world stage, nations hope President-elect Obama will prove a willing listening partner. Given the stakes, one hopes the Obama team will be willing to change course if the planned economic bailout and Afghanistan troop buildup prove ineffective.

For it is a willingness, a meekness, that allows humanity to correct mistakes and listen for inspiration, to see the needs of others and find ways to help them.

It points us away from ourselves to the star, to the brilliant light of love that once illumined an obscure stable and still shines with the truth that Christ brought. Absent humility, will we bother to look up?

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