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Christmas as a Verb

It's been an uncomfortable season for writing Christmas cards.

Is it possible to send out messages of peace and joy, or even write "Merry" and "Christmas" on the same line, when the US appears to be sliding toward war with Iraq, the campaign against Al Qaeda enters its second year, and violent conflicts rage in at least 30 countries around the world?

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In the Advent season of 1940, after the Nazis had rolled through Western Europe and were planning a bombing campaign for London, a German pastor and resistance activist wrestled with this very question.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis but whose ideas influenced such moral leaders as Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr., shared this rather startling conclusion in a holiday circular letter to his seminarians:

"War," he plainly wrote, "gives us in a special way the possibility of a real Christmas."

He went on to explain that when people, including himself, feel insecure and impotent, they are tempted to flee to "customary festive celebrations" - to their "island" of "coziness and loveliness and sweetness." But that, he says, is exactly the moment to launch into the night as the shepherds did on their journey to Bethlehem.

The shepherd story points to an active faith: hearing the message of God's universal love, following and expressing it through their very presence at the manger. This faith is much more than mere hope for a better world. Rather, it indicates confidence in the truth of God's promise, even when it appears as a babe in humble surroundings.

Jesus' life work would bear out this promise of God's supreme power and goodness. From his birth under a king who ordered the wholesale slaughter of children, to leaving a legacy which eventually brought down imperial Rome, his story offers substantive reassurance that humanity is not helpless in the face of terror or despotism.

Of course, what people do with the Christmas message, with this promise of omnipotent love, is what concerned Pastor Bonhoeffer. The fanaticism of terrorists citing Islam discredits religion, but so, too, as Bonhoeffer points out, does a comfortable, armchair faith.

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This Christmas can serve as an opportunity for people of all faiths to go into the night of adversity, and recognize, as the shepherds did, the divine light that outshines darkness. Then, as they live the message of love, their holiday greetings of peace and joy will not seem out of place, but be a meaningful act of affirmation.