TODAY is Christmas. Christians (and non-Christians) celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, who, they say, came to save the world. It was an act of extreme generosity and great love for God to send his only son into a world of sinful, rapacious and murderous people apparently incapable of changing their ways.
His birth, we are told, was greeted with joy and goodwill and a call for peace from humble shepherds and their flock. Pope Benedict XVI doesn't believe the shepherds, sheep, cows and donkey part of the story, though, but that is now so much part of the Christmas lore that not even papal doubts can alter it.
Goodwill, generosity and peace continue to be the spirit of the season that extends into the New Year. Feasting, exchange of gifts and a general sense of kindness prevail.
Religious festivities - not just Christmas - have this ability to bring out the best in human beings. It does not matter whether it is the Jewish Passover, the Muslim Id El Fitr or Hindu Diwali - they all trigger a temporary desire to share with, and reach out to, others - at least for the duration of the festivities.
The events are capable of doing this, bringing out the good cheer, because essentially human beings are, well, cheerful people. We do not like things that stress us much, which is what our daily struggles do, and for that reason welcome anything that dispels that air of gloom and lifts our spirits. When this short spell of wellbeing passes, as it sure will in the next two weeks, we ask ourselves why we cannot keep the spirit much longer. The answer is utterly unsatisfactory. We say such things as, 'that's life' or 'it is too good to last'. It is an admission of resignation to a life without good things.
And so today, we can join in the Christmas wish of joy and goodwill to all and pray that it does indeed extend to all - even if for a short while.
Some things never change, though. Two millennia since the birth of JC (I am not being irreverent. I was actually taught to be friends with him), the world hasn't changed much. It certainly isn't much better. Sin and strife abound. The rich still rob the poor. The powerful kill the weak. Injustice reigns supreme. Senseless wars continue to ravage the world, and those with the means to stop them don't; instead they fan the flames. The voiceless continue to be muzzled.
Cynics might say that the earlier coming that we routinely mark every year- more in hope than conviction - was in vain. Nothing has changed and if JC was to come back today, he would weep uncontrollably, more than he did last time. Or he would be so enraged as to threaten to wipe off ungrateful man from the face of the earth. And I am sure we would take that threat more seriously than Ahmednijad's vow to obliterate the little country of God's people who rejected his son.
The more hopeful - and they are by far the majority - would disagree. They see signs of a better life for sinful man if only he could repent, or at any rate, that we haven't got worse or otherwise we would have been struck down by an angry God. And God knows we have angered him enough. We spurned the generous gift of his son. His commandment to love our neighbour and be our brother's keeper goes unheeded. We continue to poke our fingers into his eyes and challenge him to a wrestling duel with our pretension to power and knowledge, conveniently forgetting the 'omni-' that precedes all his attributes.
Optimists can point to evidence against despair: all apocalyptic predictions to date have come to nought. The world and its sinful (and a sprinkling of righteous) residents are still here.
The world, however, is not divided between the cynics and optimists. There are some for whom there is no joy, goodwill or peace, however hard they strive for them. All they know is poverty and misery, war and destruction, sorrow and suffering.
Such people for whom life is a nightmare and peace and joy only a dream are scattered across the world. In our region they are in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in refugee camps in Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. They are in Somalia, and refugee camps in Kenya, in Darfur, other parts of Sudan and South Sudan. Further afield, they are in Syria, Palestine and other parts of the Middle East.
For these, the words of the angels are not enough. They pray for real goodwill to come to the people who rule the world so that they, in turn, can bring it to those desperate for it.
In the real world, people of goodwill who can make a difference and bring about peace are those with power, wealth and influence. It is about time the spirit of the season touched them and they became their brothers' keeper. Let them be guided by the wisdom that led the wise men to Bethlehem and away from Herod on their return journey. Let them not have Herod's heart and intentions.
I am sure if some of our powerful countries stopped playing God - an uncaring one at that- and listened to the wishes of his children, we would have peace in the DRC. Rwanda would be left to pursue its path to prosperity and happiness for its people, and not be punished for it.
That's a prayer - well, sort of, for this Christmas season. Merry Christmas!