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To hear the angels sing

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

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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.


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