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12.18.2011 _____________________

It’s the last week of Advent, a week to go before Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, born, it is believed, to a poor, homeless, unwed mother, a virgin, in a manger. One of the 99 percent!

Stir up, we beseech thee …

“Excita, quæsumus: Stir up, we beseech thee” is an Anglican phrase from the Book of Common Prayer of 1589, and used for the second Sunday of Advent. I love the phrase and all it suggests.

A few years ago, Phillip Exeter’s campus church was rededicated after undergoing extensive renovations, in part to accommodate the needs of the academy’s growing and diverse community of faith. The late Rev. William Sloane Coffin, once chaplain at Yale University and New York City’s Riverside Church (and in part the inspiration for Doonesbury’s Rev. Scot Sloan) was the guest of honor. In a church once dedicated to serving an exclusively Christian community, the evening was both moving and inspiring. For me, one of the most touching moments was when a young Muslim, Tamer, a Palestinian student from Hebron, recited the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. I was Tamer’s guardian, and I listened with pride as his words connected millennia of faith and history.

Stir up, we beseech thee …

One of my most pleasant assignments when I was living in Beirut was being sent to the Syrian village of Maaloula a week before Christmas.

Maaloula, an ancient village, seemingly carved into a hillside not far from Damascus, is home to a community of Christians and Muslims, all of whom speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Walking through its streets and alleyways, visiting its monasteries and churches, one can imagine oneself within a historical vignette experiencing the Holy Land 2,000 years ago. Of the fewer than 20,000 Aramaic speakers worldwide, the dialect spoken by Maaloula’s 2,000 residents is believed to be the most closely related to the dialect spoken by Jesus of Nazareth.

Believed by Christians to be the son of God, and by Muslims to be the most revered of prophets after the Prophet Muhammad, Jesus, the Jew, the teacher, the advocate for the “Other,” is the most revered community organizer in history, and this week I will help celebrate his birth.

Stir up, we beseech thee …;

In Islam Mary, “Maryam” in Arabic, is mentioned more in the Quran than in the entire New Testament. She has her own Sura (chapter) in the Quran, “Maryam,” which is the only Sura named after a woman, in which the story of Mary and the birth of Jesus is told.

Part of the Talmud was written in Aramaic. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Biblical books of Ezra and Daniel were written in Aramaic, as was the Gospel of St. Matthew. Over time, Greek and Arabic supplanted Aramaic across the Holy Land, especially in urban centers, but remote villages such as Maaloula were able to maintain their language and traditions.

In Maaloula, on Christmas Eve, there is a complete fast to represent Christ’s sacrifice, followed by an evening feast at which presents are given to all the children, irrespective of religion, followed by praying and dancing.

Stir up, we beseech thee …

This week, a Saudi friend of mine, born in Makkah, whose family traces its roots back to the time of the Prophet in Makkah, will travel to Cairo with his family. Abdullah was educated as a child in an Egyptian Christian boarding school and, after university in the United States, returned to Saudi Arabia. Over the years, he has worked for the government and now holds a very critical position in a sensitive Saudi ministry.

Each Christmas season, however, he returns to Cairo. He window shops, goes to Christmas parties with friends, and when carols and hymns are sung, Abdullah joins in with gusto, from memory, and celebrates the birth of the man whom he believes to be a great prophet. On Christmas Eve, he attends Mass in an Anglican Church. He loves Christmas pudding!

Before New Year’s Day, he returns to Riyadh, renewed by his encounter with Christian tradition, and more committed to his belief that monotheists share much more in faith than they disagree about in politics.

At a time when the three great monotheistic religions are struggling to counter exclusivist elements within their respective traditions, public acts of such spiritual generosity are few, especially in the Middle East, where these traditions arose.

Tensions simmer throughout the region. Egypt’s Copts feel under siege, Syria’s Christians remained allied with al-Assad’s brutal regime, the Jewish mayor of Nazareth has denied the Christian community’s request to have a Christmas tree in a town square, and Saudi religious police are vigilant about trying to wipe out all signs of Christians and Christmas that might surface in Arabia, in spite the reverence shown toward Mary and Jesus in the Quran.

Stir up, we beseech thee …

I believe all three traditions are enriched by the others’ presence. I love wishing my beloved Christian friends and acquaintances “Merry Christmas.” And I do not take offense when they wish me “Merry Christmas,” because I know those sentiments reflect a shared desire for love, peace and justice, values that the life of Jesus embodied.

This week, as Jews, Christians and Muslims approach the day celebrated as the birth of Jesus, with whom we all share lineage and tradition, let us together say to our religious leaders, our politicians, our pundits and prognosticators, to all those who have left the straight path:

Stir up, we beseech thee …

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