- The Washington Times - Friday, December 25, 2009

Although the young woman was a stranger to Bethlehem, she arrived there in the company of a Bethlehem native. The residents did not know what to make of her and did not have room for her at first. But they recognized that her heart was pure - “a woman of noble character” - and treated her kindly.

A very wise man came to her and, speaking to her, praised her for “how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord.” So, “the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son,” a child of the lineage of David, a child whom observers immediately predicted would “become famous throughout Israel.”

This story sounds like the one oft cited on this day and in this season, but it is not the traditional story Christians celebrate. Instead, it is the story from the Old Testament’s Book of Ruth. And there is a lesson in the thematic echoes from Ruth to the Gospel of St. Luke and back again, echoes that Christians say are sounded also in Micah and Isaiah, echoes that reverberate through the many centuries to grace our ears today. It is a multifaceted lesson about hospitality, about graciousness, trust and the rewards of faithfulness - and about the promise inherent in new life.

The truth is that, thematically if not theologically, the message of Christmas is a universal message, a message fully in tune with the sacred texts and traditions held in common by three of the world’s largest religions and not incompatible with tenets of a fourth. Particularly for Jews and Christians, the message is shared: As the Christmas story is presaged in Ruth (and Micah and Isaiah), so too is the promise of redemption offered (in the “Song of Simeon” in Luke 2) both as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” Both/and, not either/or. The door is open for all to walk through.

Jews do not think Jesus was the Savior; Christians do. Most would not suggest that anyone other than Christians should celebrate a specifically Christian holiday. Christians believe that at Christmas, their Lord was made manifest on this Earth - and that belief rightly brings great joy. But what is legitimately universal is the notion that what is offered at Christmas is an invitation to all, not an exclusiveness that rejects and divides. Good will is offered to all whose own hearts contain good will.

As in the Bethlehem manger and as in the Bethlehem of Ruth, welcome is offered to the stranger, succor offered to the bereft. What Christians celebrate is no threat to anybody else, no abomination to be shunted aside from polite company or the public square. Nobody should begrudge Christians their holiday of joy. To rejoice or not is one’s individual choice. But as for us, we say, “Rejoice.”