December 16th 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The meaning of Christmas

CANBERRA OBSERVED Parliamentary stampede tramples freedoms

EUTHANASIA Palliative care remains the true solution

FOREIGN AFFAIRS The more Zimbabwe changes, the more it stays the same

AGENDA FOR AUSTRALIA Putting the 'fair' back in the fair go for farmers

OPINION The new Reformation: How Christians found themselves on the 'wrong' side of history

PHILOSOPHY AND SOCIETY Why Marxists will not engage with opponents

ECONOMICS Kim Beazley rides in as a white knight for the TPP

INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS Mergers could give unions a striking profile

MUSIC Sounds like ...: A vain search for meaning

CINEMA Casablanca: Contender for the 'perfect film'

BOOK REVIEW Australia behind the scenes in WWII

BOOK REVIEW Political sparks at the 'Friendly' Games

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The meaning of Christmas

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, December 16, 2017

As we approach Christmas, our thoughts turn from the mundane activities of daily life to higher things: the celebration of Christmas with family and friends, the upcoming holidays, and, perhaps, the meaning of Christmas itself, when we celebrate the birth of a child in one of the distant corners of the Roman Empire, just over 2000 years ago.

We know a considerable amount about this child Jesus, from the accounts written not long after his death by his disciples, as well as fragments from other sources including Jewish activist and historian Josephus, and several non-Christian Roman writers including Tacitus and Suetonius, who wrote early in the second century AD, less than a century after Jesus’ death.

Jesus was of humble origin, and was far from home at the time of his birth: his parents had travelled from the town of Nazareth in northern Israel, to the ancestral home in Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem, because the Roman Empire ordered a census to be taken of every citizen.

The Emperor, Caesar Augustus, was not really interested in the statistical information gathered in a census: his concern was far more practical. It is believed that he wanted to know exactly who lived where, so he could levy taxes on them. Nothing changes!

Hidden life

Jesus lived almost his entire life in the country town of Nazareth, only emerging from obscurity after the death of his cousin, a holy man named John who lived in the desert country along the Jordan River, where he baptised people to atone for their sins.

John was murdered by King Herod, who ruled that part of the country. His crime was to have publicly denounced Herod for having married his brother’s wife, while his brother, Philip, was still alive.

At about the age of 30, Jesus began his public ministry as an itinerant rabbi, and spent most of the final three years of his life preaching in a small area around the Sea of Galilee, in northern Israel. He made occasional journeys elsewhere, including the great Temple in Jerusalem, the centre of Jewish life at the time, with his growing band of disciples.

His teaching was different from that of the three main schools of Judaism at the time. The Sadducees, centred on the High Priest in Jerusalem, believed that they were the custodians of the Jewish faith at a time when the country was occupied by the Romans. They upheld and enforced Jewish religious law, the Mosaic Law, and believed that only the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures were inspired.

The second major group, the Pharisees, accepted the whole of the Scriptures and were devout and exacting in following the precepts of the Mosaic Law. The third group, the Essenes, were a shadowy sect known to us today mainly through the discovery 70 years ago of many of their religious texts in a desert cave near the Dead Sea.

In Jesus’ time, there was intense anticipation that God would send a Messiah who would deliver the Jewish people, and there were numerous prophecies in the Hebrew Holy Books about the coming of the Messiah.

Along with the mysterious references to what seemed impossible, that a virgin would conceive and give birth to a child who would reign forever, and the “suffering servant” narrative of the prophet Isaiah, written four or five centuries earlier, which described a Messiah who would suffer for the people’s sins, there were many prophecies of royal glory.

In the decades before Jesus’ birth, a number of men had claimed to be the Messiah, but in every case, the leader had been killed, and his movement collapsed.

One thing that made Jesus different is that he did not advocate the overthrow of Roman rule – rather he ignored it.

Another key difference is that he preached a kingdom of love of God and our fellow man, best exemplified in what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, one of the most extraordinary religious manifestos of all time, which is today regarded as highly by non-Christians as by followers of Jesus Christ.

But what finally sealed Jesus’ fate was his claim to be the Son of God, and therefore equal to God himself. We know this from the Gospel narratives, written by four of Jesus’ followers after his death, two of whom were probably among his inner circle and two others who recorded what they had been told by Jesus’ closest followers.

Jesus proved he was telling the truth by performing many miracles. These, despite the enormous advances in knowledge and understanding over the past 2000 years, are as impossible today as they were in Jesus’ own lifetime.

Extraordinarily, the Gospel accounts clearly and repeatedly record that Jesus allowed himself to be captured by the temple authorities, subjected to an illegal overnight trial, and then handed over to the Romans to be executed.

What finally convinced his disciples was that he rose from the dead days after being buried, and appeared to hundreds of his disciples in person before ascending into heaven.

At Christmas time we have the opportunity to celebrate the birth of our Messiah, who came to earth as one of us, and to give us the opportunity to live forever with him in his heavenly kingdom.

Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.

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