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'Merry Christmas' for deeply felt reasons

Christmas trees decorate the interior of Greek Orthodox

Christmas trees decorate the interior of Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St. Paul in Hempstead. (Dec. 13, 2009) Credit: Charles Eckert

The best Hanukkah greetings I receive every year are those from Christians. I'm touched by their compassion and respectful religious etiquette. Of course, I'm glad to be wished "Happy Hanukkah" by Jews but their greetings are expected. However, a Hanukkah greeting from a Christian is special to me.

Instead of reflexively subsuming me under their parochial greeting of, "Merry Christmas," or far worse, instead of denuding the real spiritual texture of this season by melting us all down into the bland and generic PC greeting, "Happy Holidays," they summoned up the elemental kindness to wish me a "Happy Hanukkah." So, in this spirit of prayerful thanks to my Christian friends for all their Hanukkah greetings to me, I joyously return the favor by wishing you a very Merry Christmas.

I wish you a Merry Christmas in profound thanks for spreading the word of God. There are about 2 billion Christians in the world (almost one billion Roman Catholics), which means that approximately one of three people on earth is a Christian. Conversely, on my side of the spiritual fence, there are barely 12 million Jews in the world. Sadly, this is exactly the same world Jewish population that has existed for the last 60 years.

Understand the enormity of this fact. There are the same number of Jews on earth now as there were in 1945 - after the murder of one third of the world Jewish population in the Holocaust reduced our numbers from 18 million to 12 million. The reason for this Jewish demographic catastrophe are well known. The three horsemen of the Jewish apocalypse are low birthrate, assimilation, and intermarriage, which have each stunted our growth and imperiled our future.

So, if God's promise to Abraham (Genesis 13:16, 15:5) to make His descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the shores of the seas is true, and I believe that all God's promises are true, then the Jewish people needed help to fulfill God's promise. You see, we just ran out of Jews! However, you, my Christian brothers and sisters in faith, have fulfilled God's promise to and through my people to fill the earth with those who worship the one true God.

The fact that we do not share the same canon or the same beliefs about Jesus and his mission on earth doesn't diminish the starlight and the sand of God's promise to Abraham that you, and also our Muslim brothers and sisters, have made real on earth. "Thank you" hardly seems enough, so I'll just say "Merry Christmas" and hope you understand what I mean.

I also wish you a Merry Christmas in gratitude for all your church soup kitchens, church-sponsored shelters, church-prepared holiday food packages and donated coats, books and shoes - and for the simple kindness you bring to those who sleep in the dust. Of course, not every center of charity is Christian, but so many are that I want to thank you for the often thankless work you do with the poor.

I particularly think of my friends at the Franciscan Friary near Penn Station in New York City. Although there are fewer than 50 friars and some are well into their 80s, they've arisen before dawn every day of every week of every year since 1924 to serve breakfast outside the church to those who call the street their home.

On one of those mornings, I sat with a woman on the steps of the friars' church. She was smiling, and I asked her why. She said, "Because I am blessed." I asked her why she was blessed, and she said, "Because they know me here, and also because I am drinking from a bottle of water today that I did not have to find in a garbage can." All across this wounded world, Christian churches are sharing their blessings with people like that woman. There's no doubt in my mind that if Jesus were here, he would give her a fresh bottle of water, too. There are ways we all fail our God and God's commandments, but there are mornings when we can feel God smiling upon us and upon the pure work of our hands and our hearts.

I wish you a Merry Christmas because it seems to me what we need most in this world is more hope. Hope reduces selfishness and increases optimism about the future. Hope takes our minds away from the spiritually corrosive obsession with what has been taken from us, and lets us remember what we still have.

The birth of Jesus is the story of Christian hope. I want to thank you for bringing hope into the world along with all others who have found other non-Christian ways to teach the healing message of hopefulness.

Perhaps the real reason for the appearance of the Christmas Star is that stars force people to look up.

So for these reasons and for reasons I hold in my heart, I wish you a Merry Christmas . . . and a Happy New Year. God bless us one and all.

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