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Christmas in Korea:
It's Season of Interreligious Dialogue
By Joshua Snyder
Special Contribution
Unbo Kim Ki-Chang's work of art
"Glory to God"

Last year, as I took my seat in a pew at a humble neighborhood Catholic parish in Ulsan for Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, I noticed two unexpected visitors sitting at the very front of the church. They were obviously honored guests, given a seat of distinction, but the shaved heads and grey robes of the two Buddhist monks were the last thing I expected to see as Catholics gathered to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the founder of their Church.

But there they sat in silent meditation during the two-hour mass in which the faithful sang familiar European carols in Korean and the choir intoned liturgical settings in pitch-perfect Latin, still the official language of the Church. The two honored guests joined the faithful in paying homage to the Infant Jesus in His manger at the foot of the altar, but of course refrained from partaking in the Holy Eucharist, the source and summit of the Catholic Faith.

(Perhaps this gesture is a perfect illustration of what interreligious dialogue should be; we pay homage to the best in other religions while having enough respect for their sacred mysteries by refraining from profaning them by willy-nilly participation.)

The two monks were invited to speak after the mass had ended, and although it was well past midnight, the faithful gathered were eager to listen to what they had to say. The first monk charmed the congregation with his humor. He chided his priest-friend, "When you invited me, I did not expect a two-hour ceremony." The priest shot back, "When I visited your temple for Buddha's Birthday, I endured a three-and-a-half-hour ceremony!" It was obvious they were old friends.

The second monk paid homage to the faith of the Catholics in his immediate family, illustrating the central fact of interreligious dialogue in Korea.

Here, the interreligious divide does not cut across civilizations; it cuts through families. It is not uncommon to find Buddhists, Protestants, Catholics, and agnostics living in the same household.

Christmas is the perfect opening for familial interreligious dialogue. What could be more universal than the celebration of the birth of a Child?

The themes of this season are peace, love, and goodwill toward men. The homeless, the poor , the humble, Eastern sages, and even the animal kingdom all get a prominent role in the Christmas story.

Buddhists are more than willing to see Jesus Christ as one of the many buddhas to have come before and since the Sakyamuni. Christians, Catholics at least, unknowingly honored Siddharta Gautama as a saint for centuries.

The story Saint Josaphat, a prince who renounced his kingdom to lead an ascetic life, was one of the more popular legends of the Age of Faith, the Middle Ages. Yet it was the Buddha's tale. As it travelled West, the Sanskrit "Bodhisattva" became "Bodisav" in Persian, "Budhasaf" or "Yudasaf" in Arabic, "Iodasaph" in Georgian, "Ioasaph" in Greek, and
"Josaphat" in Latin.

Recently, as I was driving in Daegu, I noticed a large Christmas tree adorned by a cross on a public median. The tree prominently displayed the name of the Protestant church which had erected it in a public place. I sadly reflected that such a display would be impossible in my home country, the United States. Some busybody would surely contact the American Civil Liberties Union, a.k.a. the Anti-Christian Libertine Union, in protest of the establishment of a "theocracy." Back home, the intolerant Puritan spirit lives on. The Christian puritans of the 17th Century and the secular puritans of the 20th and 21st seek to ban Christmas from public life for roughly equivalent reasons.

Fortunately, Koreans are wiser. A Christmas tree, even one emblazoned with the name of a church, is not seen as an infringement on the "rights" of any particular special interest group. Rather, public officials see such displays as a way to bring joy and cheer to the midwinter season.

In my classes, the topic of holidays is discussed at least once per semester, and many of my non-Christian students cite Christmas as their favorite holiday. This is understandable. With its lights and its glitter, it's a beautiful season. What's not to like? There are those Christians who shudder to think the holiday is celebrated in a secular way by most young Koreans, who see the day as perfect for a date or a movie.

But let us be charitable and remember that whenever a store displays a Santa Claus figure, it is showing an icon of Saint Nicholas of Myra, a bishop revered by Catholics and Orthodox. Let us remember that the young couples strolling downtown are unknowlingly honoring Christ's birthday, for Our Lord said, "For he that is not against you, is for you" (Mark IX, 39, Douay-Rheims).

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Mr. Joshua Snyder, American Catholic son-in-law of Korea, lives with his wife and two children in Pohang, where he serves as an assistant visiting professor of English at a science and technology university. He blogs at The Western Confucian






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