A Christmas challenge

Recognizing the stranger

A Pew Research Center survey released Dec. 12 reported that fewer Americans believe in the biblical account of the Nativity. The survey also revealed that fewer people mark Christmas as a religious holiday.

These are troubling revelations for the religious community. While this trend away from “keeping Christ in Christmas” has been going on for quite some time, it can still be viewed as an outreach opportunity.

What exactly did the Pew Research Center study show? Fifty-five percent of 1,503 U.S. adults who responded to a telephone survey, conducted Nov. 28-Dec. 4, said they celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. This is down from 59 percent in a similar survey in 2013.

While nine in 10 U.S. adults say they celebrate Christmas (the same number in 2013), only 51 percent say they plan to attend religious services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. That is down 3 percent from 2013.

Regarding the biblical Christmas story, a declining number of Americans believe the Gospel accounts reflect historical events.

“One of the most striking changes in recent years involves the share of Americans who say they believe the birth of Jesus occurred as depicted in the Bible,” reported Pew.

Four questions related to the biblical Christmas story were asked. When asked if Jesus was born to a virgin, 66 percent said they agreed. In 2014, 73 percent said yes. Other questions were: Baby Jesus was laid in a manger (75 percent said yes, down from 81 percent in 2014); wise men guided by a star brought Jesus gifts (68 percent said yes, down from 75 percent in 2014); an angel announced Jesus’ birth to shepherds (67 percent said yes, down from 74 percent in 2014).

“Overall, 57 percent of Americans now believe in all four of these elements of the Christmas story, down from 65 percent in 2014,” reported Pew. The numbers are even sadder when viewed by age, with Millenials (those born between early 1980s and mid-1990s) listed at 44 percent in agreement with all four questions.

Like the star of Bethlehem, which guided the Magi to Jerusalem in search of the newborn king, we are challenged to be beacons of light for others. All around us, people struggle for direction, friendship, hope, meaning, love. Perhaps these needs are reflected in the responses given in the Pew study. When hopelessness, cynicism and doubt creep into one’s life, faith in God can be tested or rejected.

Christmas is a time to shine the light of hope that comes through a relationship with Jesus.

Pope Francis addressed this very need of encountering Jesus in a tweet he posted on Twitter Dec. 18: “Every stranger that knocks at our door is an opportunity to meet Jesus Christ.”

Let’s help turn around the creeping indifference toward the true meaning of Christmas by recognizing the stranger’s knock. Whether it is inviting a friend or family member to Christmas Mass, welcoming new neighbors to the neighborhood with a plate of cookies, or offering a smile and hello to the overworked department store clerk, it’s an opportunity to meet Jesus — and introduce Jesus to others.

Make your Christian presence become someone else’s Christmas present.

Merry Christmas!