The Christmas holiday means different things to different people.
For Christians, it is an intensely spiritual and sacred commemoration of the birth of Jesus. Others from different faith traditions see it as a secular day which focuses on good will to all humankind. Still others see it as an occasion for family get-togethers and an opportunity to do good for the poor.
If one theme underlies Christmas, though, it is the ecumenical spirit that should unite everyone, regardless of their faith. Is this not the time to put down the armor we wear in life and seek the good in people?
I sometimes hear that we Americans need to renew that ecumenical spirit at a time of so much division in our nation.
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Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “This is an age of suspicion, when most of us seem to live by the rule: Suspect thy neighbor as thyself. The gap between the words we preach and the lives we live threatens to become an abyss. How long will we tolerate a situation that refutes what we confess?”
He wrote those words back in 1967, which leads us to ask how much the world has really changed since then?
Christmas season also represents the theme of peace for humankind. Are we closer to that goal?
And what is peace? Is it about an absence of war? Or is there more to it?
Peace should be about a respect for the sacred in humankind. Peace is supposed to be a state of mind where we embrace each other as we are, regardless of religion, creed, race, national origin, sexual orientation and gender. Peace is about overcoming fear, anger and recognizing that the other — the one not like us — is really our brother and sister.
Shouldn’t the Christmas season revitalize a new ecumenical spirit not only for this holy day but for all days in the calendar year? Isn’t this what religion is supposed to achieve? Why is it that some believe that showing respect or embracing each other will diminish us? That kind of attitude is sad and tragic, especially when it comes from those who identify themselves as religious people.
Peace appears elusive and fragile, given the issues we face today. There are the possibilities of nuclear war with North Korea and Iran as well as the terror attacks that afflict civilized societies. Income inequality and the problems of the poor persist. Human trafficking is an abomination. Opioid drugs have become an epidemic and tear at the fabric of our society. Providing comprehensive health care to everyone in America and taking care of our seniors are all indicators of whether we can call America a great nation.
Isn’t this the time of year to run a values check on our moral code? How is it that we go to our houses of worship, pray the rituals, sing the hymns, listen to the sermons and walk outside and ignore the suffering in the streets?
What is a religious person? According to Heschel a religious person is “a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers in himself harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.”
Can’t we all hold fast to the cherished traditions that we grew up with and that we revere today and still embrace religious diversity with the idea that many truths may be in the providence of God? Is this not what this time of year can teach us?
Many people are making a difference every day in creating a better world. Their examples give us hope and inspiration.
But can we do better? How do we give back to God and to humanity for the blessings we have received? How can we make New Year’s resolutions that truly impact lives for the better? If we can answer these questions, then this Christmas season will usher in new possibilities for authentic ecumenicism that America desperately needs.
I wish all my Christian colleagues and friends a spiritual and beautiful Christmas holy day. And, to all of us, a new year with health, happiness and peace for our world in 2018.