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Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays?

Merry Christmas!  Or should I have wished you a Happy Holidays?  I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you.  After purchasing a Christmas gift several years back, I turned to the clerk who helped me and wished her a “Merry Christmas”.  In reply, she wished me a “Happy Holidays”.  But not in a polite, joy-of-the-season way.  She said it more in a scolding way.  Maybe I was reading too much into it, but she seemed to be offended that I had wished her a “Merry Christmas” and was trying to correct me so that I would never make the same mistake again and only ever wish people “Happy Holidays” instead.          

There’s a raging debate in our culture right now about whether to wish someone a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”.  I may not be that bright, but I am smart enough to know not to step into the middle of this debate!  Wherever you might come down on this question, however, I do want to make one, hopefully innocent, point: The impulse to replace “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays” is a good impulse.  It stems from a desire to see that no one feels excluded, especially those who don’t celebrate Christmas.  It stems from a very noble desire to make sure that everyone feels included in the all-embracing love and joy of the season--which is what Christmas is all about, after all.

A few weeks ago, I heard a great homily.  In it, the priest was talking about a passage from the prophet Isaiah which described the Messianic Age, when God will set everything right.  On that day, we will all see things the way God sees them.  On that day, he emphasized, we will see beyond all the nationalistic, racial, and even religious divisions our cultural limitations impose upon us.  On that day, we will see beyond all of these limitations to see God as He is. 

Whatever our differences now, he emphasized, whatever path we find ourselves on, religious or otherwise, God will eventually lead all of us to see the full glory of who He is.  One day, he emphasized, we will see beyond it all to see how radically inclusive, all-embracing, and unconditional His love is--and how this beckons us to love one another in this same way. 

This all-inclusive love of God, he emphasized, is the fullness of God’s glory. It reflects who God truly is.    

This priest was putting forward a beautiful vision that many others have echoed.  Like the impulse behind saying “Happy Holidays”, the belief that the different religions are just different paths to the same God is based upon a wonderful sentiment: to be inclusive of the world’s great religions and the people who follow them.  To prevent anyone from feeling excluded.

But as I was listening to his homily, I couldn’t help but notice that the God this priest was describing, the God who lies beyond all our religious differences, the God these different paths will eventually lead us to, is a God of love--specifically, distinctly, an all-inclusive, all-embracing, unconditional love.  In fact, I can’t help but notice that this is the most striking thing about virtually everyone who thinks and talks this way--the God the different religions are ultimately leading us to is always described as a God of love.  A radically inclusive, all-embracing, unconditional love.

And the most striking thing to me when I actually studied the world’s religions was that only one of them talked about God this way.  Jesus is the only major religious figure to teach that God is love and in such a radically inclusive and all-embracing way.  Only Jesus revealed--and embodied, quite literally--a God who loves unconditionally, and who invites anyone and everyone who will accept the invitation, into a close, personal, and eternal relationship.   

Even as I found myself more enamored with several of these other religions, I couldn’t escape this one, striking fact: If what I believed at the time was true, if I truly believed that the different religions were equal paths to the same God, a God who clearly had to be a God of unconditional love, then the God all these other religions were pointing to in very limited ways was the very same God Christ had revealed--fully.   If what I believed was true, then what all the other religions are each groping toward in some partial, incomplete way, is the exact God revealed in Christ.  Jesus isn’t one path among many.  He is the destination.  The God who lies beyond all our differences.  As God truly is.  In the fullness of all His glory. 

In other words, if, like most people who say they believe in God, you believe that this God is a God of love, if you believe that this is the ultimate reality that lies beyond all our limited religious traditions and understandings, if you believe this is the full vision of who God truly is, then, in some limited sense, you already believe in the God of Jesus Christ. 

And if you want a close, personal, eternal relationship with this God of love, then logically it can only happen in and through Jesus, who is the God who exists beyond all our religious limitations come in human form to save us.    

The other day, I heard about another great homily by another priest.  This priest gave the homily at his mother’s funeral.  As you would expect, it was incredibly moving, charged with the deepest of emotions.  But one of the people who heard it noticed something that was even more moving than the homily. 

When the priest finished his remarks, he came down out of the pulpit and had to cross in front of his mother’s casket to get to his seat on the other side of the altar.  As he walked past his mother’s casket, he paused for a moment, looked directly at the casket, and, in a soft voice, said: “Thank you.”  Thank you for a lifetime of love.  A lifetime of unconditional love. 

The impulse most of us have that God is love--an all-inclusive, all-embracing, unconditional love--is so overwhelming because love is what means the most to us as human beings.  So, Merry Christmas!  Because Christmas celebrates the fact that the Creator of all that is loves each and every one of us so much that He willingly became one of us.  He gave up all the prerogatives and privileges of His divinity in order to reveal His unconditional love to us in a way that would profoundly move us and turn our hearts back toward Him.  He became a helpless little baby in order to save us so that we might be able know His eternal embrace. 

Not that’s something everyone can celebrate.

May you have a most blessed Christmas basking in the glory of His light, love following upon love.

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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