NZ Herald, December 1)' />
Auckland church leaders say we need to look past Santa - and even the traditional nativity scene - to discover the greatest gift of all

'Santa is expected to gift sunny skies to much of New Zealand on Christmas Day but wise men will keep a brolly close at hand' (NZ Herald, December 1). This optimistic take on the weather forecast for Christmas Day combines two elements of the Christmas season: the annual world-wide travel of Santa Claus as he completes his almost impossible task of present-delivery, with the perhaps lesser acknowledged present-givers, the wise men of the biblical story of Christmas. The challenge is to determine which of the two present-giver identity options actually point us to what Christmas Day is all about.

In so many ways, Christmas is almost over before it has even begun. Months ago, Christmas wrapping paper and Halloween chocolates were competing on the supermarket shelves. Signs for sales and opportunities to purchase next year's Christmas presents are already beginning to appear. The pressures placed on consumers and families are immense, so much so that we might just want it all to stop! But spare a thought for the reality of the message: that it is not so much the presents that matter at this time of year as the presence of a small, weak and helpless baby born into relative poverty in a town called Bethlehem 2000 years ago. Christmas is so-called because on Christmas Day we are invited to remember and to celebrate Christ's-mass: Jesus' birth, which heralded God stepping into human history and living among us. This event has the power to herald new beginnings in our own lives today.

Perhaps not surprisingly however, Christmas has rather lost its true meaning in the face of more seemingly attractive and colourful displays that light up our shop windows and streets. While not wanting to dismiss light, colour and creativity, and opportunities for festivity and spending time with family, if we completely ignore the presence of Christ over the presents that we share, we are ourselves ironically missing out on the greatest gift of all: God becoming one of us so that we might know him and be able to live in good relationships with each other. There is a rich imperative in the Christmas story to seek out those in our midst who might be forgotten. The shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night would hardly constitute a priority to be told the good news about Jesus' birth, you might think, and yet the angels went to them first.

The Christmas story can look very attractive and even delightful, particularly in a church or pre-school nativity play, where there is the added hazard of wise men who go on strike, and sheep who get stage-fright, refusing to move and thus blocking the crucial manger scene. But the reality of the story is far more gritty and challenging: a young village girl encounters an angel who informs her that she is to give birth to a child. She risks misunderstanding, disgrace and shame; her fiance struggles to understand what has happened, but stands by his young wife-to-be. Shepherds encounter a heavenly host of angels; and wise men come looking for a king and find him in a humble dwelling rather than a grand palace. God's gift to humanity came in a most unexpected way. It's a radical story of power made perfect in weakness, and of grace found in an unlikely place. Above all, it's a story that tells us that conventional models of power often are not the strongest ways of effecting deep transformations in our communities today. The story of Jesus' birth is told in the New Testament Gospels against the backdrop of the might of the Roman Empire. In such a context, the ruling authority of the elite enjoyed all the privileges of wealth and status. Jesus' birth indicated that real power was from among the weak and dispossessed, and with those considered outcasts and irrelevant. It involves a line-up of characters that certainly wouldn't make the pages of the glossy magazines of today, but which none the less has all the drama and intrigue to equal the highest-grossing blockbuster movie!

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If the Christmas story is about presence, then it's also about proclamation. For most people, the fun of Christmas is closely followed by the excitement of heralding the new year. 2014 is a special year in the life of our nation. On Christmas Day 1814, the Reverend Samuel Marsden preached the good news of Jesus Christ at Oihi, Bay of Islands. He was able to do this because of the relationship he had developed with the Ngapuhi leader Ruatara, and it marked the beginning of missionary activities in Aotearoa New Zealand. It also marked an important milestone in bicultural relationships between Maori and Pakeha. That these relationships were grounded in the proclamation of the Gospel on Christmas Day, brings the importance of these two events right into our midst. The proclamation of the presence of God in Jesus Christ is woven into the fabric of New Zealand. As such, we invite you to consider what new beginnings might be heralded through an acknowledgement of the power of the story of Jesus' birth, life, death and resurrection. How about considering the difference that can be made if we allow the proclamation of this good news to take root in our homes and communities?

We can begin by letting the real story of Christmas be heard, delighted in and shared.

All around our communities at this time, local churches are offering opportunities to come and sing the Christmas story, and to listen and learn more about its meaning. Taking time out of our busyness to encounter the deeper mystery of Jesus' birth gives us all a chance to pause and reflect. In so doing, we may consider also that many people find Christmas difficult, whether through loss or loneliness.

Sometimes an invitation around the neighbourhood to come to a community BBQ can make all the difference. Through acknowledging the presence of Jesus, the presents that we share (whether great or small) become embedded in a greater desire to proclaim the coming of the one who can transform all our lives.

Whether or not Santa has to navigate showers on Christmas Eve, the wise men will be hot on his jandal heels to show him the way to the manger, where the Christ-child lies as we watch and wait with wonder and awe.

Church leaders

• Rev Dr Neville Bartle, National Superintendent, Church of the Nazarene

• Rt Rev Ross Bay, Anglican Bishop of Auckland

• Mr Peter Browning, Northern Association, Baptist Churches of New Zealand

• Mr Glyn Carpenter, National Director, New Zealand Christian Network

• Rev Roy Christian, Moderator, Northern Presbytery, Presbyterian Church

• Pastor Paul de Jong, Senior Pastor, LIFE

• Most Rev Patrick Dunn, Catholic Bishop of Auckland

• Mr Peter Eccles, Auckland District Chairman, Congregational Union of New Zealand

• Rev Dr John Fitzpatrick, Senior Pastor, Greenlane Christian Centre

• Mr David Goold, on behalf of the Open Brethren Churches

• Pastor Mike Griffiths, National Leader, Elim Churches of New Zealand

• Pastor Ken Harrison, Senior Pastor, Harvest Christian Church, Papakura AOGNZ

• Pastor Dr Brian Hughes, Senior Pastor, Calvary Chapel

• Major Stephen Jarvis, Divisional Commander, The Salvation Army

• Very Rev Jo Kelly-Moore, Dean, Auckland Cathedral of the Holy Trinity

• Pastor Joe Kummerow, Auckland Leader, Lutheran Church of New Zealand

• Rev Andrew Marshall, National Director, Alliance Churches of New Zealand

• Pastor Bruce Monk, National Leader, Acts Churches of New Zealand

• Pastor Sam Monk, Senior Pastor, Equippers Church

• Pastor Peter Mortlock, Senior Pastor, City Impact Church

• Pastor Lloyd Rankin, National Director, Vineyard Churches Aotearoa New Zealand

• Pastor Dean Rush, National Leader, C3 Churches

• Pastor John Steele, National Leader, New Life Churches

• Pastor Eddie Tupa'i, President, North New Zealand Conference, Seventh-Day Adventist Church

• Rev Dr Richard Waugh, National Superintendent, Wesleyan Methodist Church of New Zealand

• Rev Marilyn Welch, Auckland Manukau Superintendent, Methodist Church of New Zealand