Among many faiths, for a better 2021

Photo by Robert Thiemann/Unsplash

Three weeks ahead of schedule, Bishop Craig Dixon of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints presented two ministers, our local rabbi, and me with a rosca. We were at a celebration of what Rabbi Brad Bloom called “Winter Holy Days” at Beth Yam Synagogue on Hilton Head Island. 

The livestreamed event had each of us speak about Advent, Hannukah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa customs, as per our own faith traditions. We had been asked to bring music and to talk about a custom. 

 I offered the “Magnificat,” in Bernadette Farrell’s sung version, and “O Come, Divine Messiah,” spoke about the O Antiphons recited from Dec. 17-23, and described the Christmas Eve vigil suppers (“Vilija,” in Slovak; “Wigilia,” in Polish), and the meaning of the shared Christmas wafers.

When it came time for Bishop Dixon to speak, he described his Texas upbringing in a family that was half Anglo and half Mexican in the Mormon denomination. He focused on the Epiphany and the custom of gift-giving on that day, the day celebrating the arrival of the Magi with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 

At the conclusion of the program, he presented all of us — representing the Jewish faith, the African American Episcopal Church, the local Unity Church, and the Catholic faith — with a gift. He had specially requested five roscas from Bluffton’s Pan Fresco Olé bakery. 

The rosca (which he jokingly called the Mexican version of fruit cake) is very much like what many of us know as Easter bread. Its deliciousness was not what moved all of us, however. It was a fitting culmination of an afternoon in which we respectfully listened to one another’s beliefs and traditions, came together with a desire for peace on earth, and acknowledged that, despite significant differences in doctrine and religious practice, we can live and work together and enjoy one another’s company as children of God.

The Solemnity of the Epiphany of Our Lord reminds us of a number of things which inspired our December gathering. 

First of all, Epiphany, classically celebrated on Jan. 6 but moved to a Sunday for the sake of the faithful in the U.S., reminds us that Jesus Christ came to the world not only as the hoped-for Messiah of the people Israel but also as Savior of the world, as Light of nations. 

He charged his apostles with spreading the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Epiphany celebrates the greatest Christmas gift: God’s own Son arriving for the sake of all of us. Jesus is the one to whom the hosts of heaven sing in the Book of Revelation: “Just and true are your ways,/O king of the nations …/All the nations will come/and worship before you . . .” Epiphany is a feast of manifestation, God revealed to and for all peoples, represented by the Magi. It’s about God’s universal love.

Secondly, Epiphany reminds us that finding God and meeting God personally requires both a journey and a community. The motivation for the journey is the pursuit of wisdom. 

When we come to think of it, the two things which all of us seek in life are wisdom and love. We want to understand some basic things about life, the world, ourselves, our purpose. And we seek in the company of others who offer us comfort, encouragement, and solace. Scripture speaks of the journey of Magi, not the solitary trip of a single sage.

Third, Epiphany is a celebration of the giving of gifts. It moves us to sacrificial giving, not merely wrapping and putting bows on tokens. Bishop Dixon had to have spent some significant cash on those roscas, and the Bluffton bakery graciously made them, whether or not they were prepared for an early request instead of a post New Year rush. 

The giving was an act of thoughtfulness and a sharing of a tradition of his Mexican mother, whom he credited with enriching his faith. 

All of us, right now, amid what we hope are the last days of COVID-19 as well as the Christmas season, are called to share our faith and to extend our resources to others. Our monetary gifts and our goods are important to people in grave need, but our gifts of self — prayerfully and interpersonally — are primary.

Gov. Henry McMaster has declared January 2021 Interfaith Harmony Month. One of the gifts we can give, in the spirit of Epiphany, is the gift of listening attentively and respectfully. Our desire to understand where people are coming from and what their heritage of faith — or their resistance to any faith — is all about are gifts we can give to our families, our local community, and our world.

As Catholics, building bonds with people of other faiths does not mean that we somehow water down our beliefs into some sort of sloppy broth of niceness with a nod to a vague divinity. 

No, it means that we acknowledge that Jesus is Lord, that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that the Church contains and offers the full deposit of God’s revelation and the means to saving grace. All that having been said, we recall that Mother Church describes herself as “the visible plan of God’s love for humanity” (as quoted from the Second Vatican Council in the Catechism of the Catholic Church 776).

Last January, the Interfaith Partners of South Carolina and the Atlantic Institute held numerous get-togethers on behalf of interfaith understanding and cooperation. I had the privilege of attending an ecumenical-interreligious service with school children’s pastors at St. Joseph Catholic School in Columbia, a presentation at the Baha’i center, and prayer and a lecture followed at the Masjid Noor-Ul-Huda Mosque. 

There was also a rich interchange of beliefs and ideas at the national convention of the Society of Christian Ethics, a meeting of the statewide South Carolina Christian Action Council, and a discussion on “Confronting Hate” in Bluffton, spurred on by the Fellowship of South Carolina bishops. If I were to summarize what all of these gatherings were about, I would have to say that they invited all of us to link faith with the pursuit of the common good.

This year, the gatherings will be more online than in-person. The pandemic has generated more activity among national and international groups like the Rumi Forum, the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, Greenfaith, and Interfaith Power and Light. All of these invite us into “chats,” and some share projects. Catholics are involved. An upcoming event is the result of a joint effort of three groups. 

On Jan. 25, the last day of Christian Unity Week, the Catholic Association of Diocesan Ecumenical and Interreligious Officers (CADEIO), the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the Catholic Climate Covenant will launch a project for care for the earth — which Pope Francis has pointed out is essential for the present and long-term well-being of humanity. Yours truly has been deeply involved in this project. The particulars will be shared by Zoom (with registration online available via the CADEIO website). 

This event, other online events, and the limited local events that arise to foster understanding among various faiths are cause for celebration. Unfortunately, as long as most remain online, they will not include rosca. But they may bring a number of the Holy Spirit’s gifts — like wisdom and knowledge and understanding. 

May God bless 2021 and everyone! 

Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM
About Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM 125 Articles
SISTER PAMELA SMITH, SSCM, is the Director for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the Diocese of Charleston. Email her at psmith@charlestondiocese.org.