We Christians love Christmas, and the greeting “Merry Christmas” brings a warm glow to the darkest and coldest time of the year. Religiously diverse Americans, however, need a new holy day so we can say to one another, “Happy Holidays,” and mean it. This year especially, amid multiple threats of terrorism and in the face of daunting economic and environmental challenges, global solidarity should be on everyone’s agenda. We could use a day that would call us together and give us a taste of what it is like to be one human family. The feast of Christmas, of God become one with all of us, celebrates that promise. It should inspire us to find a new holiday that will embrace everyone, everywhere.
Consider Epiphany, Jan. 6. It centers on a great story with something for everyone, including sacramental symbols that invite meditation, repentance and renewal. In the West, Epiphany is an almost forgotten Christian holy day ready for 21st-century, prime-time renewal.
Think about it. Epiphany concerns three astrologers (“wise men” and “kings” are descriptions added later), quintessential sign-seekers like those still with us in the morning newspaper. What’s more current than searchers, alert to signs of the sacred? Across the globe, from southern California to burgeoning cities in China, there are people displaced from their traditional cultures and neighborhoods; many are exiles or refugees; and some are filled with aspirations for a better future. All of us search the skies and our own experience for signs of the sacred. As sign-seekers, those astrologers are like us.
What happened when they asked King Herod, wrapped in his sacred authority, for help in finding “a new king”? He tried to manipulate their faith and use their hope to protect his power. Later, filled with anxiety about a new king, Herod played it safe and killed all the babies, the Holy Innocents. By that time, of course, the infant king whom the astrologers had found was off in Egypt, a refugee himself.
Here is the amazing part: the astrologers are looking for a king; and, having met Herod, they know something about kings. Yet when they reach Bethlehem and find a baby in an animal’s manger, they do not hesitate. “Overwhelmed with joy,” Matthew tells us, they “prostrated themselves and did him homage.” The star had brought them to a poor, unknown family’s baby, yet they had no doubt that he was the king for whom they searched. Shepherds, with the help of angels, knew it too. But most people, wrapped up in religion (then and now) never figured out what the astrologers knew.
Christians deserve some credit for taking up the baby, and later his cross, and sometimes—not often—living according to his message. But Epiphany was an early warning sign about religions that turn signs into boundaries. Epiphany may mean that this baby is not just for Christians, but for everybody. That need not mean everyone has to become a Christian. After all, with the help of an angel, the astrologers “returned home by another route.” The story gives no hint that they should become Jews or anything else. We can expect that having followed the star and paid homage to the baby, they were the better for it. They might have hoped to find themselves united in peace with everyone. Maybe this could be a shared prayer for our new universal holy day.
Since our earth and our human family face many dangers, we need holy days that can unite rather than divide us. Epiphany asks us to keep an eye out for signs of the sacred and to look in unexpected places, like islands of peace in the midst of poverty and powerlessness.
Epiphany hints at an option, God’s option, for babies: for that baby in the crib, for the babies slaughtered by Herod, and for all those babies who die because adults with power and responsibility do not notice or do not care. It calls for new commitments like protecting the life of infants, after they are born as well as before. Maybe the baby option can cut across the pro-choice and pro-life divisions in our consciences as well as our politics. Could a baby draw such compassion and commitment from the great religions? After all, from newborns to grown-ups we are “one family.”
So let’s end silly arguments about whether to say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” and say both. And when Epiphany comes, may it be our first worldwide, interfaith day of celebration of human dignity and solidarity. In Rome and Jerusalem, at Jewish and Muslim holy sites, Buddhist and Hindu shrines, wherever people gather to celebrate the New Year, let’s say “Happy Holidays” and mean it.