By: Fr. Jim Gardiner, SA
It never really occurred to me that Christmas and ecumenism – the quest for Christian unity – could be so much alike. The most obvious similarity is how the birth of the Christ Child drew so many different kinds of people to that little town called Bethlehem. If St. Luke can be believed – and there’s no good reason not to believe him – there were rough-mannered shepherds, a harried innkeeper whose “no room” sign didn’t deter Joseph and Mary from inquiring, and eventually elegant magi with their respective retinues. And there were animals and angels. Probably never since the great flood had there been such a gathering. And they all felt like they fit in. What was unimaginable 2000 years ago is the stuff of great comfort today.
Christmas and ecumenism are also alike insofar as both are the fulfillment of promises made by God – God’s promised Word made flesh celebrated each Christmas the world over for the past 2000 years and the unity that Christ explicitly prayed for on the night before he died (Jn.17:21). Father Paul Wattsn said it best when, in the first edition of The Lamp (February, 1903), he asked: “Is then Christian Unity a visionary dream? Will the prayer of the Son of God never be answered?…sooner or later,” he wrote, “every petition of Christ will inevitably be answered….” That Christians will be one someday is a given; but only God knows precisely how and when.
Like most other kids at the time, I really believed that Santa brought those presents that were under the tree when we got home from mass on Christmas morning. But one year I found myself with more questions than answers: how did Santa know our sizes? and how did he get down a chimney that was blocked? when none of the answers to my questions satisfied me, I began to get a different picture. Same thing with Christian unity: I was a subscriber to what I learned later on was known as “return” theology: you left! you come back! Until one day I came across Yahweh telling the prophet “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” (Is.55:8). That’s when Christian unity “as God wills, when God wills and how God wills” replaced “return” as the object of my prayers.