This time of year is one of traditions: traditions of decorating Christmas trees, singing carols with neighbors, and of course, getting upset when people say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” You know, the things we look forward to all year!
While, no doubt, Christians throughout the world are persecuted for their faith, disenfranchised and even killed because of what they believe, I want to suggest that this situation is not one of them; our choice of holiday greeting is not between a Christian and an anti-Christian one, but in fact two fundamentally Christian greetings. The Second Vatican Council said so.
Okay, you got me. No, the Second Vatican Council did not comment on the appropriate holiday greeting for Christians. But I think the words of wisdom offered from it helps to guide us today. In its landmark document on the Church, Lumen Gentium, the bishops reflected on what it meant to be Church, what the boundaries of the Church were, and how salvation might be understood for those outside of it. After a reflection on the fundamental connection between all Christians, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, they looked beyond:
Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God. In the first place we must recall the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh. On account of their fathers this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues.
The Jews, being the people to whom God spoke and led, the people into whom our savior was born, are related to the People of God in an important way. This makes natural sense, but the document continues:
But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Muslims, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind.
Muslims, being one with us in our father Abraham and acknowledging the same creator of all, are privileged in the eyes of Christians as brother and sisters as well. Amazing! But we’re not done yet…
Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Saviour wills that all men be saved. Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.
Presumably speaking of Hindus in their great philosophies, Buddhists in their striving for something beyond this fading world, and pagans in their transcendent mysteries, the council recognizes those people who seek the God we know even if they do not know it is truly Him. These people, too, are related to the people of God. But we’re still not done:
Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life. But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature”, the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.
Yes, even in those who do not follow any religion or have any specific theologies or rituals, they too are related to the People of God. Together with its document specifically on the relationship with people of other religions (Nostra Aetate), the Second Vatican Council, “rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which… often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all.” In essence, wherever God can be found—which is in all religions, to varying extents—God and the people God inspires should be cherished.
So with that said, I speak to all Christians who will celebrate Christmas tomorrow and Orthodox Christians who will celebrate it on January 7; to all Jews who will celebrate Hanukkah starting tomorrow; all Muslims who celebrated Maulid al-Nabi earlier this month; and to all other people of faith or spirituality who find this time of year to be holy in some way, whether religiously or secularly…