C e n t e r  f o r  I n t e r f a i t h  E n c o u n t e r

A Story Sweet in the Telling

In mid-December I received a call at short notice to celebrate the Christmas liturgy at St. Mary's, Harding, MN, where I've been ministering sporadically as a married Catholic priest since December of 1999. I promised to celebrate the Eucharist once again, but added I would try to bring some Hindu and Muslim friends, including kids, to participate. The St. Mary's Catholic community generally seem to enjoy my liturgical celebrations. They never say this to me over and over again. So I was happy to bring my dear interfaith friends of other religions to co-celebrate with Christians the birth of Jesus Christ.

As things turned out, we reached the church a few minutes after 11 am. There was much lovely snow on the ground around that little church in a pretty rural setting about one-hour's drive north from St. Cloud, MN. The people were waiting eagerly for their Sunday Christmas liturgy 2003. We guests too were eager. We had spent an hour Saturday afternoon at our Muslim sister's home practicing a novel enactment of the Christmas story as recounted in the gospel passage (Lk 2, 1-14) designated for Christmas day.

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A Hindu woman read part of the gospel. A little brother and sister (mother is Muslim) were Mary and Joseph. They beautifully enacted how M & J left Nazareth during a census and, after travelling the great distance to Bethlehem on foot, found no place to lodge and soon had their firstborn in a farmhouse. There were animals around when Jesus was born, so to celebrate the occasion, we all sang Old MacDonald had a farm.

The singing even by the little congregation of some 40 people was quite lusty -- and more full-throated than ever -- because even the tiny tots present quite definitely knew this one. When Baby Jesus began to cry, Mary gave him to Joseph to carry and invited two little boys to distract the newborn by doing the bunny hop. The little fellers did the hop with full vigor. This brought smiles to many a senior face. The little ones in the church,too, couldn't help enjoying that one. So, guess what, the teardroplets on the face of the Little Babe of Bethlehem dried up in no time...

The celebrant then invited everybody to form a human chain and dance around the church pews and weave past Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and around the altar. The tune of the song was taught to us by Mary (under 10 years old). The verse sang of the power of One who was wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. About 75% of the congregation joined in the chain/snake dance as we sang the chorus over and over and entertained the holy family for a few minutes in joyful song and dance.

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With a spring in the steps of such a lovely little interfaith crowd, do you thing the angels may have sung their usual Christmas ditty? Perhaps they preferred to lay their musical instruments down and join us instead. For, I quite forgot to request our Hindu lady to complete the latter half of the gospel passage which told of angelsong to rural folk who were out in the fields tending sheep.

The rest of the liturgy went off wonderfully although it had to be abbreviated as we wished to end in an hour. The kids who came to the communion table each received a lollipop or other candy happily distributed by a visiting 6-year old. The Hindu lady felt free to join the rest of the Christian congregants as they received the consecrated bread. If the Lord himself were there in my place, would he have offered her candy instead of a warm hug and the consecrated elements? Of course he wouldn't. So how could the disciple have done differently than the Master?

The inclusive atmosphere was more than heartwarming. It seemed to bring out the fulness of meaning of the Savior's birth. He came to bring peace to all people of good will. And all had room for Him and for people of other faiths and cultures in their hearts.

After the Eucharist we shared goodies lovingly prepared and served by the Christian community of Harding. They mixed with the interfaith guests and sincerely thanked them for having co-celebrated their great festival so marvellously. There were many words of appreciation and love for the Christmas-play players and singers and bunny hoppers.

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Our dear Muslim and Hindu friends too said that they had had a wonderful time and thanked their Christian hosts for their warmth and hospitality. I can't forget how people's faces lit up during my introductory words at the Christmas Eucharist. That was when I informed them that these two visiting families from St. Cloud had intercultural identities, with their kids born on different continents. It seemed to me that in our live Christmas play we had three kings and queens from the orient who had brought from afar their gold, frankincense, and myrrh in the form of their six children in all.

Many people at St. Mary's asked about Mariani who had to work all weekend at St. Cloud Hospital three nights in a row. They all said they missed her and sent her their love and Christmas wishes. Some had even brought greeting cards and enclosed a little money to show their extra special tokens of appreciation for Mariani & I who do our little bit from time to time to keep their, our, and everybody's (inter-)faith alive.

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 The Catholics of St. Mary's love the fact that their married priest's wife almost always makes it to Harding with him. They make it plain that they love her sitting in the pew and shedding her light and warmth on all she meets at St. Mary's as elsewhere. For my part, I make it clear that, if Mariani hadn't financially supported this "non-canonical" Catholic priest in his ministry for well over 5 years here, we would never have stuck around to serve people of all faiths in Central Minnesota.

St. Mary's has some 40 - 50 families -- very loving, simple, kindhearted people of all ages -- that are mainly Polish Nationalist Catholics. They have been served for many years by my friend the Rev. Bill Dix, a married Catholic priest who, like me, is a member of the Federation of Christian Ministries (FCM). Bill invites me to sub for him whenever he and his dear wife Karen have to leave the region, particularly in the winter. Bill and Karen have met many of our interfaith friends at CIE (Center for Interfaith Encounter) and UNIITE (Understanding the Need for Interfaith / Intercultural Togetherness and Education) and attended some of our programs. Verbally to me, as well as in FCM publications, Bill has expressed much appreciation for UNIITE -- indeed he was on its board at the very beginning.

Thus far I have officiated at one interfaith (Catholic-Lutheran) marriage at St. Mary's in the summer of 2002. The young couple is soon going to have their firstborn and they will request me to baptize the infant. To find about married Catholic priests and their ministry it's worth visiting FCM online.

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You may find it a treat, too, to check out this link sent to me by my friend from Mumbai, India. http://www.telegram.com/static/crisisinthechurch/111003.html

You may also want to visit UNIITE's website incredibly set up and professionally managed by our same Muslim sister, a pillar of our movement in St. Cloud, MN from the outset. Do check out particularly our upcoming Jewish dialogues series (Feb-Mar 2004) at six church locations in St. Cloud: http://www.uniite.org/dialogue_st_jewish.html

With a song in my heart as I share with you --
and so doubly cherish --
a warm memory of the year just gone by,

Dr. Malcolm Nazareth, Adjunct Faculty
Community Studies (SH 334: Ph: 306-3947),
Ethnic Studies (CH 230; Ph: 255-4928), Philosophy
St. Cloud State University
Executive Director, UNIITE

Copyright 2002 -  CIE - Center for Interfaith Encounter