A heartfelt and freely chosen “Merry Christmas!”

Baby Jesus. We count the days and we sing the songs. Some engage in the North American war of words over “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” Still others decry the trees, cards, advent calendars and wreaths along with the gifts and expressions of generosity. Peace on Earth? Goodwill to all?

Don - "Love, Hope, Believe"

Some support the manger and menorah in the same public square. Others – an admittedly smaller but louder portion of the population – decry both. Is the public square to be truly for all the public or must one be stripped of religion to enter what Father Richard John Neuhaus referred to as a naked public square?

Whatever one thinks of this celebration – commercialism gone wild or season of love and charity – one thing cannot be denied. Jesus is the central figure in human history.

Son of God? Son of Man? Son of God and Son of Man? As He famously asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”

The Jews who had no reason to record the deaths of the many who claimed to be Messiah experienced a new religion birthed in their holy city. Josephus, the great Jewish scholar of first century Rome, made reference to His crucifixion in particular.

The Romans who had their own selection of gods, including their emperor, in time embraced Him as King above their king. They even changed the record of time to reflect their estimate of His birth.

His real presence in the world cannot be denied.

His worship as God is today accepted by over 1/3 of the planet’s population. His importance in the plan of God by another 1/6. And the denial of His place in history and human lives is the focus of much of the remainder.

The Magi so revered the signs in the night sky that they traveled far to bring their best to Him. King Herod, in those days ruler of ancient Israel under the Romans, so feared His birth that he ordered the slaughter of every male child in Bethlehem under the age of 2 years. Mary and Joseph were warned and had taken their baby boy out of town by then.

Historians tell us He probably wasn’t born December 25. Some challenge the story of the stable. Others question whether the Romans settled on the right year. Efforts to avoid Him are many.

But it’s not about contending over minor details.

And it’s not about debating questions around the existence of evil, but accepting the presence of supreme and redeeming Good.

And it’s not just about Baby Jesus. Yes, the miracle and story of His birth remind us about prophecies of old fulfilled, fresh hope and overcoming fear. But it’s not just about Baby Jesus.

As my pastor says, it’s about “a blood stained cross, an empty tomb and a poured out Holy Spirit.”

And it’s about men, women and children who risked their lives to hold fast to their faith in Him and to share that faith with others. Centuries of men, women and children.

And it’s about men, women and children who are risking their lives today for the same reasons in Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria; to name just a few from the World Watch List top 50.

And it’s about men, women and children who are willing to risk their reputations and social status to hold fast to their faith in Him and share it with others right here at home.

It’s not about putting others down. It’s about lifting His name up! Both in word and in deed.

And somehow, now as then, it’s about living life together – the constitutional consensus that holds us together and the conversation that enables us to appreciate our differences. Acceptance, even when without agreement.

It’s about the continuing effort to understand, maybe someday experience, the message of the angels to the shepherds who were watching their flocks on that night, “peace on Earth and goodwill to all.”

It really doesn’t matter whether you say “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas.” What matters is that it is heartfelt and freely chosen.

So, Happy Holidays! And, Happy Hanukkah!

Merry Christmas!