"This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger."
It was in the midst of last year's Christmas season that the December 26th tsunami killed thousands of people on the shores of the Indian Ocean. Who can forget the images of the killer waves, the many victims and traumatized survivors on the shores of Indonesia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and even Somalia? All around the world, these images prompted an unprecedented response to appeals for emergency relief, an extraordinary expression of solidarity with the victims by people from all walks of life.
The year that followed has renewed our awe of nature's power, with an unusual frequency of violent storms, floods and hurricanes such as Katrina in the Gulf of Mexico, and the terrible earthquake that devastated whole villages and cities in Kashmir. In Brazil, where the World Council of Churches will hold its 9th Assembly in February 2006, the national weather service recently used the term "hurricane" for the first time following an unprecedented storm in 2004. Vast areas of the country suffer from a terrible drought, as if our physical environment will no longer tolerate the careless and merciless attack on its integrity, demonstrating its power to humanity and reminding us of our vulnerability. Repeatedly, it has been the poor and marginalized who were most vulnerable and, thus, the most severely hit. The gap between rich and poor, the traces of racism and casteism, the ills dividing humanity were exposed in these situations of crisis.
As we prepare ourselves again to celebrate Christmas, the story of the birth of Christ speaks in new ways against the background of this experience. We see before us the image of a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger that was, according to the tradition of the early church, hewn into the rock of a cave in Bethlehem. Throughout history, this image has comforted victims of oppression and violence in many parts of the world. It has led humans to realize that Jesus was one of us, indeed: someone down-to-earth. It has encouraged some to believe that God's presence with us in Jesus is powerful enough to transform this earth. It has motivated others to accept their own responsibility and to stand in solidarity with all who work for change and alternatives to existing conditions. Through Jesus Christ, the incarnation of the divine, God has invested love in humanity. God became a human being, born of a woman, who suffered as we suffer and died as we shall die.
"Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians 2:5-11). Dare we invest less in humanity than God has done? Dare we invest less in ourselves than God has deemed appropriate?
When we pray in the words of the theme of the forthcoming WCC Assembly, God, in your grace, transform the world, we confess our readiness to proclaim the good news that the Triune God has acted to dignify humanity through God's incarnation in Jesus Christ and to begin the transformation of a world that knows little of grace and mercy. With the birth of the child in Bethlehem, God is at work within creation to bring about needed change through grace. Churches and their members world-wide stand on the side of the poor; this is especially true of Christians in Brazil who engage in struggles for the landless, the right to water for all, and the care of creation. Brazilian churches are working together, in the power of the Holy Spirit, with the hope of overcoming violence and helping to establish justice and accountability in politics.
When we ask you this Christmas to draw nearer to the suffering and marginalized in your thoughts, prayers and deeds, we ask you to pray especially for the people and churches in Brazil. Called to be co-workers with God, our participation in God's mission begins where we live, yet our common responsibility leads us to ecumenical co-operation for the sake of the whole world.
May the blessings of Christmas bring you peace and joy.