The images flash by on television screens during every Christmas season.
The pope moves slowly around the altar in St. Peter's Basilica on Christmas Eve or sits on his balcony throne, solemnly waving to flocks of New Year's pilgrims. He reads sermons which news reports crunch into sound bites about hope and world peace, or joy and world peace.
This year it was children and world peace.
"My thoughts go to all the children of the world," said the frail Pope John Paul II, struggling to emphasize key phrases in his Midnight Mass text. "So many, too many, are the children condemned from birth to suffer through no fault of their own the effects of cruel conflicts."
Once these media rites are over, our civil religion proceeds to the National Football League playoffs. Christmas is quickly old news.
But this was not an ordinary year. Thus, it was a good year to note what two radically different kinds of believers have to say about Christmas.
Anyone who reads the pope's texts discovers that he believes something miraculous actually happened 2,000 years ago, something connected with peace on earth and good will among men. Pope John Paul II, in other words, believes that Christmas is built on more than a mere story that produces warm feelings in human hearts.
If Christmas is built on truth, he said, then there is reason for hope and joy -- no matter what. This message is not an easy sell after 2001 and the pope said so on Christmas Eve.
"The Messiah is born," said John Paul. "Emmanuel, God-with-us! ... But does this certainty of faith not seem to clash with the way things are today? If we listen to the relentless news headlines, these words of light and hope may seem like words from a dream. ... Our hearts this Christmas are anxious and distressed because of the continuation in various parts of the world of war, social tensions, and the painful hardships in which so many people find themselves. We are all seeking an answer that will reassure us."
The pope's defense a Christmas miracle may not have sounded radical, but it was -- especially after the horror of Sept. 11. To understand why, it helps to contrast his Christmas message with that of an American shepherd who makes his share of headlines.
According to the Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong, the problem with religious believers who embrace miracles is that this quickly leads them to claim "they have received their truth by divine revelation. It is a strange claim that leads almost inevitably to the authoritarian assertion that there is a single 'true church' or a particular religious system that alone offers salvation."
In today's world, this kind doctrinal certainty is truly dangerous, said Spong, a relentlessly candid voice in the Episcopal Church's progressive establishment.
After Sept. 11, it is time "recognize that religious truth, like all truth, emerges out of human experience," he said. "Once that is understood, then religious people will recognize that their exclusive claim to possess divine revelation is nothing but a part of our human security system. Those claims create the mentality that fuels religious imperialism."
The bishop openly attacks "irrational doctrines" such as papal infallibility and scriptural inerrancy. Just before Christmas, Spong again denied that God is a "supernatural being." Thus, "I cannot interpret Jesus as the earthly incarnation of this supernatural deity."
"Perhaps the only way for the Christmas promise of peace on earth to be achieved," he said, "is for every religious system to face its human origins and recognize that worshipers in every religious system are nothing but human seekers walking into the mystery."
For Spong and many others, there is a "Christ experience," but not a literal Christmas. The pope embraces tradition and revelation. He still believes that God can give answers.
"The birth of the Only-begotten Son of the Father has been revealed as 'an offer of salvation' in every corner of the earth, at every time in history," he said. "The Child who is named 'Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace' is born for every man and woman. He brings with him the answer, which can calm our fears and reinvigorate our hope."