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TODAY, people are entitled to say, with some relief: "We made it to Christmas again."

As the family gathers around the tree to exchange gifts, the weeks of preparation -- some of it close to being work -- fade away. The time has come at last to enjoy the company of family and friends in a setting of warmth and love.

If not all the cards have gotten sent, if that last gift wasn't purchased, if some special cookies weren't baked, it is too late now.

It's past time to puzzle over the annual letter from people one barely knows, telling about the babies and graduations of people one doesn't know at all.

It's past time to struggle with the assembly of some toy which may or may not have had a piece missing. (It's hard to tell sometimes. You've done your best.)

It's past time to worry about whether the tree is drying up too fast to last until Christmas and whether the cat -- in the spirit of the chase -- is going to pull it over.

It might well be just the time, though, to pause and think a while about Christmas, a holiday whose focus is more fractured than that of any other.

It is a Christian holiday, but in a country that enjoys increasing diversity, many people are not Christians and many professed Christians never set foot in a church. It is a holiday marked by shopping sprees that are countedon by retailers to save their financial bacon for the year.

Yet it celebrates the birth of Jesus, who taught humility and would be distressed by the extravagance practiced in his name.

It is a holiday that tends to picture that birth sweetly in countless portraits of the Madonna and child and in some seasonal songs. It all seems so secure, warm and safe -- so non-controversial.

Yet the established order of his time saw Jesus as a threat -- one it was not about to suffer mildly.

Matthew's gospel tells us that a troubled King Herod asked the touring wise men to come back and tell him what they found as they followed the star. Herod claimed he, too, wanted to worship the newborn king, but he stayed in Jerusalem and missed being in the Nativity scene.

Matthew writes that the wise men, being "warned in a dream," went home a different way and never did report their findings to Herod.

Angry Herod responded by ordering the slaying of all the children two years old and younger in Bethlehem and environs. But Joseph heeded an angel and escaped with his son Jesus to Egypt where they stayed until Herod died.

And Jesus' message has been troubling the powerful ever since.

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