Editorial: The Advent of Christmas
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, December 15, 2001
With the imminent arrival of Christmas, the minds of most Australians - even in this secular age - turn to the forthcoming celebrations of the Nativity, the coming of Jesus Christ.
For many, it is also an occasion to attend churches, and revisit once again the events of the first Christmas. Near contemporary accounts tell us that a baby named Jesus was born to Mary, a virgin who had travelled with her husband Joseph down from their home in Nazareth, in Galilee, to the town of Bethlehem, a short distance from Jerusalem.
St Luke, who gives us the most detailed account of Jesus early life, says that the visit was connected with a census ordered by the Roman Governor Quirinius - probably, as Malcolm Muggeridge has surmised, to raise taxes. Some things never change!
Regardless, the Gospel writers tell us that this child was, in fact, the Messiah, the one who had been promised by the prophets of old to redeem mankind from their sins. In the rich and powerful words of the Apostle John, He was "the Word of God", who dwelt amongst us, "full of grace and truth".
Just as we look forward to Christmas by buying gifts, preparing family celebrations and planning for the holiday season, so this season offers an opportunity to reflect on the necessity of Christianity for the modern world.
If one looks at the statistics, Christianity in Australia would seem to be on a downward escalator. In the 1996 Census - the last for which figures are available - 16.5 per cent of people described themselves as having no religion, while a further 8.6 per cent did not state a religious affiliation.
On the other hand, as Kevin Andrews pointed out in his book Changing Australia (1998), the number of Australians attending church weekly rose slightly in the decade to 1993 from 18 to 18.4 per cent. This suggests that the proportion of people actively practising their beliefs has remained approximately constant, or may actually be increasing.
In the wake of the terror attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York last September, it was widely reported that the number of people attending religious services increased significantly.
While this may be a momentary change, there can be little doubt that the attacks shocked many people in the West out of their sense of complacency, their naive beliefs in the inevitability of progress and the basic goodness of mankind.
It also raised the fundamental question about the meaning of human existence. The prevailing intellectual fashion of the day states that there is no ultimate purpose to life - other than the satisfaction of material needs.
More reflective minds have always maintained that this is an illusion: that despite the undoubted material benefits of modern Western societies, material goods alone cannot satisfy the human spirit. Others have pointed out that as acceptance of a materialist ethic has grown, the indicators of social disorder - measured in higher divorce rates, drugs, crime, homelessness, mental illness, incarceration rates and many other indicators - have been increasing.
But September 11, when hundreds of New York firefighters gave their lives in an attempt to save the innocent victims of the World Trade Centre bombing, was a compelling rebuttal of the claim that life has no meaning. It was a practical expression of the idea that the altruistic virtues of generosity, compassion and self-sacrifice can triumph over hate.
Shortly after this tragedy, the British zoologist and avowed atheist, Richard Dawkins, blamed religion for the terrible events of that day. I am not competent to talk about Islam, but Christianity certainly proscribes the taking of innocent human life as a great moral evil.
In contrast, the great horrors of the 20th Century which killed untold millions of people - from the Soviet gulags, to the Nazi holocaust, to Maos China and Pol Pots genocide - were imposed by atheistic regimes, which believed in no moral absolutes, but that power grows out of the barrel of a gun.
Any impartial historian will attest to the civilising impact Christianity has had on society over the past 2000 years.
Christianity allows us to make sense of the world, and is the alternative to the prevailing cultural nihilism in the modern world. It inspires us to make sacrifices - for our own good, and for the rest of society.
The importance of principled beliefs and the necessity to work for change were emphasised by Russias great novelist, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in his Nobel Prize speech in 1970. He said:
"The timid civilised world has found nothing with which to oppose the onslaught of a sudden revival of barefaced barbarity, other than concessions and smiles.
"The spirit of Munich is a sickness of the will of successful people, who have given themselves up to the thirst after prosperity at any price, to material well-being as the chief goal of earthly existence ... so that their accustomed life might drag on a bit longer - and tomorrow, youll see, it will be all right.
"But it will never be all right. The price of cowardice will only be evil; we shall reap courage and victory only when we dare to make sacrifices."
- - Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council