12.10.2013 _____________________

There are two weeks left before Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, born, it’s believed, to a poor, homeless, unwed virgin, in a manger – perhaps in Nazareth, perhaps in Bethlehem – in a land called Holy.

Last Sunday, on the second Sunday of Advent, Anglicans read from their Book of Common Prayer of 1589 a verse that is always recited on that day – a verse that should beckon to all:

“Excita, quæsumus: Stir up, we beseech thee.”

I love its call:

Stir up, we beseech thee . . .

Phillips Exeter’s church was rededicated in 2003 after undergoing extensive renovations, in part to accommodate the needs of their growing, diverse community of faith. The renewed church, once dedicated to serving an exclusively Christian community, accommodates the broad diversity of faith common now within the Academy – a diversity witnessed too within our communities. 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 the Jew known as Jesus. As Tamer’s guardian I listened with pride as his words connected millennia of faith and history.

Stir up, we beseech thee . . .

Last week Gov. Maggie Hassan opened Concord’s Christmas season by lighting the Christmas Tree at Bridges House – the governor’s official mansion.

That it is a Christmas tree, and not a holiday tree is important to me. I believe that religious symbols – Christmas trees, creches, Menorahs and minarets, for example – should be visible in public spaces, if presented non-provocatively.

I believe that our public squares are richer when mosques, churches, synagogues and meeting halls line our streets, jostling for attention with malls, movie theaters, town halls and libraries, all reflecting the pluralistic experience that is America.

Years ago I was sent on assignment, a week before Christmas, for Time Magazine to the Syrian village of Ma’aloula.

Ma’aloula, an ancient village seemingly carved into a hillside not far from Damascus, is home to Christians and Muslims, all of whom speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Walking through its streets and alleyways, visiting its ancient monasteries and churches, I imagined myself within a historical vignette of the Holy Land 2,000 years ago.

Of the fewer than 20,000 Aramaic speakers worldwide, the dialect spoken by Ma’aloula’s 2,000 residents is believed to be the most closely related to that spoken by Jesus of Nazareth.

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 Ma’aloula were able to maintain their language and traditions.

In Ma’aloula on Christmas Eve there is a complete fast to represent Jesus’s sacrifice, followed by an evening feast at which presents are given to all children, irrespective of religion, followed by praying and dancing. Until recently, Muslim villagers celebrated Jesus’s birth alongside Christians.

Stir up, we beseech thee. . . .

Believed by Christians to be the son of God, and by Muslims 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 month I too will honor his birth.

In Islam, Mary, “Maryam” in Arabic, has her own Sura (chapter) in the Qur’an, the only Sura named after a woman, in which the story of Mary and the birth of Jesus is told.

Stir up, we beseech thee . . .

This month, too, a Saudi friend of mine, whose family traces its roots back to the time of the Prophet Mohammad in Mecca, will travel to Cairo with his family. Abdullah was educated in Egyptian Christian boarding schools and, after university in the United States, returned to Saudi Arabia to work.

Each Christmas season he returns to Cairo with his family. They window-shop, go to Christmas parties and sing Christmas carols and together they celebrate the birth of Jesus. On Christmas Eve, they attend Mass at the Anglican Church in Zamalek. Abdullah doesn’t take the Eucharist but he loves Christmas pudding!

Before New Year’s Day, they return to Saudi Arabia, renewed by their encounter with Christian tradition, and more committed to a belief that monotheists share much more in faith than they disagree about in politics.

Sadly, today, war and conflicts rage throughout the region: today, Egypt’s Christians are threatened and Ma’aloula’s Christians are under siege from power-hungry jihadists more inspired by ignorance than by faith.

Christians in some Israeli communities struggle to affirm their identity in public during Christmas, while in Saudi Arabia religious police are vigilant about trying to erase any sign of Christmas that might surface there – despite the reverence expressed for Mary and Jesus in the Qur’an.

Americans have greater choices, fewer threats. I believe all three traditions are enriched by each other’s presence. I wish Christian friends and acquaintances “Merry Christmas,” and I don’t take offense when they wish me “Merry Christmas,” in part because I know those sentiments reflect a shared desire for love, peace and justice, values that Jesus embraced: Whether secular, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Quaker – whatever faith tradition we may or not embrace – I believe we are called, by our Constitution as well as by our prophets, to serve the forgotten and the dispossessed, to honor conscience and each other’s dignity and humanity.

Stir up, we beseech thee. . . .

I like Christmas trees. I love menorahs and the story they tell. I love the call of the shofar, the clamor of church bells and muezzins calling the faithful to prayer. We need to witness, our children to witness, each others’ religions, traditions, symbols and practices. We need to see the world not as something to be feared but as a source of richness that nourishes us all.

When we bear witness, we are nourished – that is our path to peace.

Stir up, we beseech thee . . .

This column appeared originally in the Concord Monitor.

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