NEWS FEATURE: Dallas Throws Huge Party for the Homeless

c. 2004 Religion News Service DALLAS _ Operation Christmas Gift 2004, one of the largest gatherings of its kind in this city’s history, brought together churches, businesses and volunteers to throw a huge party for about 8,000 of the city’s homeless and needy. Held Saturday (Dec. 18) at the Dallas Convention Center, the event offered a meal, gifts, concerts, prayer, makeovers, photos, medical exams, legal advice and counseling. A live Nativity scene greeted the guests of honor as they entered the hall.

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c. 19). Nearby stood a towering Christmas tree and a larger-than-life-size creche, which will be unveiled on Christmas Eve. “The feast of Christmas, perhaps the most dear to popular tradition, is very rich in symbols tied to different cultures,” the pope said. He called the creche, which portrays the Nativity, “the most important” of them.

NEWS STORY: Pope Beatifies German Prelate Who Opposed Nazis

c. 2004 Religion News Service VATICAN CITY _ Pope John Paul II on Monday (Dec. 20) approved the beatification of Cardinal Clement August von Galen, a German aristocrat who fought the Nazis so fiercely that he was known as “the lion of Munster.” Von Galen’s was one of 22 “causes” for sainthood that received approval from John Paul, who already has proclaimed a record 1,345 “blesseds” and 483 saints in the 26 years of his pontificate. Beatification, or being declared blessed and worthy of veneration, is one step below sainthood. A member of the aristocratic Spee family who became bishop of the city of Munster in Westphalia in 1933, von Galen was outspoken in the defense of Jews and the Catholic Church, which also came under Nazi persecution.

NEWS FEATURE: Christian Leaders Issue Christmas Messages

c. 2004 Religion News Service (UNDATED) Following are excerpts from the annual Christmas messages from various Christian leaders. Some statements have been edited for length. Archbishop Demetrios Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America I greet you on the joyous occasion of the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, an event of cosmic proportions that marked the very entry of salvation into our world. The significance of this event rests in the awesome truth that our God, in his perfect love for us, chose to enter our world not as an adult clothed with earthly authority, but as “a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” It is truly incredible to contemplate such a tender and humble image in view of the incomprehensible might and majesty of God.

COMMENTARY: Ending `Hopeless’ Lives Discounts Value of the Soul

c. 2004 Religion News Service (UNDATED) When my friend Debra learned that a young man she knew had been in a tragic accident and was comatose, she went to the hospital to visit him _ every day for three months. No one knew if the man would emerge from his deep, distant sleep, but Debra believed that he would. During her daily visits, she recited the Psalms aloud to him. She believed, as nearly all religious Jews do, in the spiritual and healing power inherent in these Psalms, compiled by King David more than 2,000 years ago.

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c. 2004 Religion News Service Crystal Cathedral Conductor Kills Himself At Calif. Megachurch (RNS) The Rev. Robert Schuller has expressed how “deeply saddened” he is by the Friday (Dec. 17) suicide of the orchestra’s conductor at the Crystal Cathedral megachurch. Johnnie Carl, 57, killed himself in a bathroom at the Garden Grove, Calif., facility after a nine-hour standoff with police, The Associated Press reported.

NEWS FEATURE: `Messiah’ Recordings Available to Suit Every Taste

c. 2004 Religion News Service (UNDATED) Reputedly, when told once what a “grand entertainment” his English oratorio “Messiah” provided people, George Frideric Handel replied, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them _ I wished to make them better.” Another ideal of betterment applies to “Messiah” on recordings. Repeat experiences of this seasonal favorite on disc better enable even a veteran concert-goer to delve deeper into its many facets; moreover, recordings can give those who don’t get a chance to hear the work in a live performance an idea of what all the noise is about. Not long after its 1741 premiere in Dublin, “Messiah” became an annual rite for choral societies in English-speaking countries. (Mozart even re-orchestrated the work for German-language performances.) Just as holiday concerts of “Messiah” are plentiful nationwide, there are myriad recordings available.

NEWS STORY: Going Beyond the Nativity Scene, Protestants Rediscover Virgin Mary

c. 2004 Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly (UNDATED) It’s Christmas _ and for Protestants, that means it’s time for the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, to make her annual cameo appearance in creche sets, carols and children’s bathrobed Christmas pageants. But for some Protestant theologians and activists, the season also presents a time to take a fresh look at the role of Mary in the life of the church and to recover her presence for a more vital faith and spirituality. A host of books, essays and magazines are doing just that. These Protestant thinkers and writers see a recovery of Mary as in keeping with historic Reformation views.

COMMENTARY: Anti-Defamation League Promotes Holiday Inclusiveness

c. 2004 Religion News Service (UNDATED) During this holiday season the Anti-Defamation League again has been accused of being the “Grinch” trying to censor Christmas. This charge is unfounded and shows a profound misunderstanding of ADL’s approach to the “December dilemma,” the perennial concern over how public schools and institutions recognize the holiday season. If anything we are strongly pro-religion. For more than 90 years we have been a steadfast advocate of religious liberty for all Americans and the right of everyone to celebrate the religious traditions of their choosing _ whether in the majority or minority.

In Holy Season of Light, Darkness Grips Bethlehem

c. 2004 Religion News Service BETHLEHEM, West Bank _ Leading the way into the Bethlehem Peace Center, Hatem Abu Tarboush, a wiry, 30-year-old tourism agent, remarks: “They’re talking about peace. But I don’t think there’s any peace to talk about.” The center, housed in the old British headquarters on Manger Square, is outfitted with brochures in different languages and a bored young receptionist. The hall is bright and organized. The floors and windows are clean.

COMMENTARY: Whose Responsibility Is It to Keep Christ in Christmas?

c. 2004 Religion News Service (UNDATED) When did corporate America become responsible for my Christmas cheer? In my 47 years on this Earth, it has never occurred to me that I should look to advertising or store clerks for affirmation of my faith. That’s what church is for. Family and friends are handy for that, too, not to mention the little miracles of daily living.

COMMENTARY: Markings On Pews Reveal Spiritual Journeys of Not-So-Ordinary Travelers

c. 2004 Religion News Service (UNDATED) Social scientists speak of unobtrusive measures, that is, spontaneous behavior that reveals the truth as well or better than carefully devised tests and interviews or, God help us, exit polls. We stand now at the North Pole of the year from which we look down the path we have traveled and choose the way we will enter for the next phase of our journey. Our pockets and desks overflow with unobtrusive measures of ourselves. Check book stubs and credit card bills, for example, are virtual autobiographies at our fingertips.

NEWS STORY: Pope, 84, Not Too Old to Celebrate Christmas

c. 2004 Religion News Service VATICAN CITY _ With the help of a mini-elevator and a throne on wheels, an ailing Pope John Paul II will lead the world’s more than 1 billion Catholics in celebrating the 27th Christmas of his long reign. Although the 84-year-old Roman Catholic pontiff has eliminated a number of Christmas traditions in order to conserve his strength, and his role has become less active, he will remain at the center of the season’s most important ceremonies. Increasingly debilitated by arthritis and Parkinson’s disease, John Paul will nevertheless preside over a midnight Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, deliver his “orbi et urbi” message to the city of Rome and the world at noon on Christmas Day and offer Christmas greetings in some 60 languages.

NEWS FEATURE: The History of the Christmas Tree

c. 2004 Religion News Service (UNDATED) The Christmas tree remains a powerful symbol for many of us, a mandala of sorts, evoking emotions that can be traced through thousands of years of humankind and across many different faiths. “Christmas trees probably add more to mark the period of `peace on earth, goodwill toward men’ than any other product of the soil,” says Ann Kirk-Davis, whose family has been raising and selling Christmas trees for generations. “This enduring tree symbol _ which is even older than Christianity and not exclusive to any one religion _ remains a firmly established part of our holiday customs, engaging not only our senses of sight, touch and smell, but also our sense of tradition.” The Christmas tree has evolved from centuries-old traditions. Ancient Egyptians, Romans, Chinese and other cultures used evergreens to mark the winter solstice, celebrate the end of the harvest year and symbolize the spirit of renewal.

NEWS FEATURE: Historian Uncovers Little-Known Papal Plot

c. 2004 Religion News Service (UNDATED) Modern Italy was unified in 1870 when the national government annexed Rome and the Papal States despite protests from Pope Pius IX. The new nation almost didn’t survive, as the pope struggled to get other European countries to invade Italy to restore the papal lands. For the following six decades, the popes portrayed themselves as captives of the Italian government, trapped in the confines of the Vatican. In “Prisoner of the Vatican: The Popes’ Secret Plot to Capture Rome from the New Italian State” (Houghton Mifflin, $26), anthropologist and historian David I. Kertzer writes a gripping account of this almost-unknown story.