c. 1999 Religion News Service

Annual Christmas messages are a holiday tradition for many religious leaders. Here's a sampling of what the leaders of some major denominations have to share with their fellow Christians this year. It includes Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey; World Council of Churches General Secretary Konrad Raiser; the Rev. H. George Anderson, presiding bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold; and Bishop Christian Krause, president of the Lutheran World Federation.

Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey

"When they saw the star, they were overjoyed" (Matthew 2:10) The joy of the Wise Men is understandable. The Gift of Christ to our world is beyond our comprehension. Christmas is always a joyful time for Christians, a time to reflect, with thankfulness to God, upon the full richness of his gift to the world of the Word made Flesh. How profoundly blessed we have been over the past two thousand years by the faith and the hope we have been given in Jesus Christ, that in him the world in all its pain and suffering, as well as in its goodness and glory, might be saved.

But this year is special. Across the world, Christians and non-Christians will be united in marking the dawn of a new millennium. There will be global celebrations which acknowledge in a symbolic way the indelible mark which Jesus has made on history, and I hope there will be much rejoicing!

On 31 December, I will be joining many leading figures from Britain, including the queen, the prime minster and a wide range of religious and civic leaders, for a national celebration in the Millennium Dome. I will have the great privilege and joy of leading the nation in prayer and thanksgiving.

At that moment, with half the world having already entered the year 2000, and the other half just about to, I shall be very conscious of being at one with you all as we thank God for his goodness and ask him to bless our future together as part of his one creation.

Of course, being at the Millennium Dome, which has deliberately been developed on the Greenwich Meridian, I am sharply reminded that, for several centuries, we have looked at the world in a very Eurocentric way. For a long time, maps have been centered around Europe, often exaggerating its size in comparison with other parts. Much of the language which we use to describe the world -- the Far East, the Antipodes, the West Indies -- assumes that everyone sees the globe from a London perspective.

Well, the Anglican Communion demonstrates so well how those perspectives have changed as we enter the new millennium. We are truly a worldwide Communion, and we are called to value, respect and care for one another. There continue to be so many places and so many people who are weighed down by the burden of human suffering. We are at one in that suffering as we are at one in the joy of faith. Indeed, it is by growing in that sense of oneness that our pain is transfigured as we each seek to express God's love in our own lives. It is in that spirit that many people have become very involved in the campaign to lift the burden of unpayable debt from the poorest countries of the world. This campaign, led by the Jubilee 2000 Coalition, has been very successful in drawing attention to the moral dimensions of the problem, and we must ensure that the momentum is maintained, and developed into a challenge to ensure that the U.N. targets on poverty reduction by 2015 are achieved.

Let me then end this Christmas message by recalling that the "Eurocentricity" of our modern world is a recent phenomenon. Many of the medieval maps which exist -- we have a wonderful example in Hereford Cathedral -- place Jerusalem at the center. As we remember with joy God's presence with us, and dedicate ourselves afresh in his service as we begin the new millennium, let us pray for the peace of Jerusalem, spiritual home for millions of people, Christian, Muslim and Jew. May the Prince of Peace reign in our hearts and our lives this Christmas, and may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, invade this world, bringing joy and hope in our believing.

World Council of Churches General Secretary Konrad Raiser

The celebrations of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, which Christian churches around the world are preparing this year, are inevitably marked by the approach of the end of a century and the dawn of a new millennium.

Bethlehem will be the scene of a major commemoration of the passing of two thousand years since Jesus' birth, televised throughout the world. Countless Christmas pilgrims are expected in Nazareth, Jerusalem and many other places linked to the life of Jesus.

But this will be a special Christmas everywhere. Even people who do not belong to any church will be drawn to the light which is shining forth from the one Christians confess as the Son of God who has entered human history.

Because the turn of a century and of a millennium has such strong symbolic power, noisy and glittering public festivities around this milestone will in many places overshadow the remembrance of the nativity of Jesus Christ. Yet despite the festivities, many will be entering the new millennium with anxiety and fear of the unknown. Similar forebodings filled many people at the time when Jesus was born. Remarkably, even after two thousand years, the life and message of this son of the Jewish people continue to attract men and women who find in him the source of hope and certainty for their lives. And as human history has continued, with all its glories and its shame, his announcement of the coming of God's reign has enabled people to face the future with confidence, while posing a critical challenge to all forms of human power.

But any truthful and honest commemoration of the birth of Jesus by the Christian churches -- the communities of those who have committed themselves to follow the way of Jesus -- must be accompanied by an attitude of repentance. For while Christians have carried his message, the gospel, to the ends of the Earth, they have in their own lives been tempted often to follow other ways. The millennium which is drawing to a close has been a period of Christian division, strife and mutual condemnation. The desire to spread or defend a Christian culture and civilization has spawned violence and war, injustice and oppression. And the century now ending, which saw the emergence of the ecumenical movement and the growth of a sense of communion among the followers of Jesus Christ, has nevertheless been the most violent period in human history. We cannot commemorate his birth in Bethlehem without being mindful of the Shoah which will forever remain engraved in the memory of the people from whom Jesus came.

In the spirit of Jesus of Nazareth our message at Christmas this year should be one of reconciliation: reconciliation between Christians, Jews and Muslims in Israel and Palestine at a time when the peace process is entering its final stage; reconciliation between Christians and Muslims in Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Bosnia and Kosovo; reconciliation between Christians, Muslims and Hindus in India; and reconciliation among the members of the Christian family all over the world.

Significant steps have been taken during the last years of this century toward overcoming the sources of Christian division. These steps must continue. Entrusted with a ministry of reconciliation, the churches must begin in their own household. Only then will they be able to carry forward the light they have received in Jesus Christ. For "what has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." (John 1:3-5). May this light shine forth as we celebrate Christmas this year.

The Rev. H. George Anderson, presiding bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

"Helping the Herald Angels"

When the Christmas angels sing "Glory to God in the highest," they're announcing that the birth of Jesus has cosmic significance. God's gracious entrance into human life not only means hope for us; it also demonstrates God's power -- a miracle no less glorious than the creation itself. To create something out of nothing in the beginning was certainly awesome, but to create holiness out of sinful human flesh is like starting from less than zero. No wonder the heavens ring with cheers at this remarkable feat!

But there is more. The miraculous birth of Jesus could have been wonder enough, but the reason for that birth surpasses imagination. In fact, people still ask why it was necessary for God to take such a dramatic step; surely there was an easier way to restore the love that had been lost between God and God's children.

But is restoring peace so simple? Many parents have discovered that the way to reconciliation with their children is not easy at all, and the textbook remedies offered by advice columns and well-meaning friends just can't bridge the gap.

So God did what no human parent can do. God crossed the gap and joined us really, fully, right down to the skin and bones. How contrary to what we would expect. Parents tell their estranged children to "grow up" -- that is, to become more like the parents. Enemies are offered forgiveness if they'll just come to their senses. Warring parties demand that the other side lay down their arms first.

Peace is hard to achieve because each side has preconditions and no one will risk the first move. Of course, there are good reasons for such caution: Nobody wants to risk defeat. But there comes a point when risk is preferable to a hopeless standoff. God took that risk by entering human life, and we celebrate God's daring each Christmas. Can we also give glory to that daring by becoming peacemakers ourselves?

May Jesus Christ show you the way!

A blessed Christmas.

Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold

We move along, through days and years, trying to be faithful. Yet, for all our prayers, our pondering of Scripture and our participation in the sacraments and life of the church, in our hearts there is often a still small voice of accusation which judges us continually, and finds us wanting. Incarnation is an assault upon our own spirit of self-judgment, as God's unwavering compassion ruthlessly breaks through all of our defenses. Through Jesus, God entered our narrow, limited world and set us free -- overriding our self-judgment with mercy and assuring us that his grace is always sufficient and his power is made perfect in weakness.

As we approach a new millennium, let us do so with expectance and humility. May we assume an open and welcoming attitude toward God's compassion made flesh and dwelling among us in Jesus. As we receive God's compassion into our hearts, they fill and overflow. Compassion thus moves out from God through us: compassion toward one another across all the divisions that plague us as a church and as a nation and subvert all notions of being members one of another for the common good; compassion across cultures and national identities that make us creditors and debtors, rich and poor; compassion for the stranger and the other who is a potential angel of God rather than an enemy; compassion for the Earth our home, whose resources we squander and misuse.

A young woman pregnant before her marriage, a rude shed for animals behind an inn and thus God's word of compassion comes among us in the fragile form of a newborn child entrusted to our faltering human care. So it was two thousand years ago, so it is today. Such is God's trust in us. Such is God's hope for us. And out of his store we are given "grace upon grace."

You come to us, O Christ, at the turning of the year and the dawn of a new millennium: You are the Alpha and the Omega The beginning and the end. All times and seasons are yours, and in you all things hold together and are brought to completion. Draw us by your Spirit into communion with you and one another and make us and all things whole and free in the full force of your deathless love. Amen.

Bishop Christian Krause, president of the Lutheran World Federation

It is the last Christmas of this century and the first one in the ecclesiastical year 2000 in the Christian era. Anno domini -- in the year of the Lord -- this is the phrase our ancestors used to relate day and hour, months and years of their lives to Christ. Every year thus became a year of Christ. Today the world has become larger, or at least we have become aware of its size. We have also become aware of other systems of reckoning dates as well as other religions. Other outlooks on life try to win us over. But what we have in common is the longing for meaning and a feeling of safety in today's torn-up reality.

Fears about the future are increasing. The great plights of many peoples weigh on us and increase the feeling of utter hopelessness for our world. In this respect, the past year has not made a difference. And we personally also experience such suffering and guilt. Yet, behind all the darkness and utter silence, hope lies in the knowledge that the old message may be valid: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light" (Isaiah 9). And as it was to the shepherds so it is also announced to us: "Do not be afraid; for see -- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day ... a Savior" (Luke 2, 10f.).

Christians all over the world want to and ought to let themselves be told and proclaim to others once more this year what is valid, if only we let it be valid: God himself is on the way to meet us, to help us with his love that he extends to everyone. Such is his justice: helping love for all -- without discrimination. And this is not taking place somewhere up in the clouds, but right here amongst us -- and even in the darkest corners.

As a global Lutheran community we can look back on many good, hope-inspiring experiences. The Lutheran World Federation since its founding has been and still is a communion and an organization offering help and a home, support and a future to countless people. ... I am well aware of the difficulty involved frequently in trying to keep focused on the direction and the aim of our activities when, on a daily basis, alarming news shows the extent of the crises and our limitations. But we are sisters and brothers and can open each other's eyes also to the good experiences of God's grace and mercy.

For me, this includes the time in Augsburg (when top Roman Catholic and Lutheran officials signed a joint statement on salvation) and our new shared witness in the basic truths of our faith. This is a sign of hope at the end of this century. The path that led us to Augsburg has shown how precious our community and our solidarity are. It points toward the year 2000 and to the challenges we are faced with together and in dialogue with our sister churches everywhere in the world. In the large global families of Christianity, we will jointly set out on the search for ways of reconciliation, of peace and of sharing the goods of God's one creation. We will not be doing this in vain. For the Watchword 2000 expresses what lasts and holds even when times are changing:

"If you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the LORD" (Jeremiah 29, 13-14).

Our lives are sheltered in God -- every hour of every day, every month of every year anno domini. So we endure the night and take every new morning gratefully from God's hand.

I wish you a happy Christmas season and a blessed New Year!

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