When I listen carefully, when I am attentive to the miracle of how freely blood courses through my jugular, when I listen to the beating of my heart – each beat a reminder, each pulse reminding me of God’s presence – I am at peace.
“Lo! The angels said: ‘O Mary! Behold, God sends thee the glad tiding, through a word from Him, (of a son) who shall become known as Jesus, son of Mary, of great honor in this world and in the life to come, and (shall be) of those who are drawn near unto God. And he shall speak unto men in his cradle, and as a grown man, and shall be of the righteous.’” Quran 3:45,46.
When I am attentive to the voices of prophets – when I am attentive to the stories of the Red Sea parting, virgin births and night journeys, when I am attentive to the miraculous beauty of a hummingbird hovering above a red rose, I hear within those voices and stories a call – a call that we must rise above our tribes, our associations, our comforts, to embrace the One – to heed God’s call for justice and to follow paths toward peace.
Since 1885, America has observed Dec. 25, Christmas, a religious festival, as a federal holiday – a celebration that the Puritans had banned in 1659. In 21st-century America, with a population more religiously diverse than ever, Christmas is a time when many religious minorities can feel marginalized in the public square.
I’m not sure how the Founding Fathers would have felt about celebrating Christmas as a federal holiday: Personally, I’m a bit schizophrenic about it. On one hand I think the public square should be neutral and secular, on the other hand, as Jesus is the most revered prophet to Muslims after Prophet Muhammad, I honor the occasion of his birth and appreciate the Christian celebrations proclaiming his birth – as long as they don’t intimidate or diminish the rights of other Americans.
So I agree: Peace on Earth, good will toward men – and women – as long as it’s all women, all men, all colors, all ethnicities, secular or spiritual.
Muslims, too, are lovers of Jesus. His birth, of a virgin woman named Mary, is described in the Quran. Indeed, Mary is the only woman for whom an entire Quranic sura, chapter, is named. Thus, while Muslims don’t believe that Jesus is the son of God, he is venerated and loved by Muslims.
Also in December, annually on the 17th, Muslims gather in Konya, Turkey, to honor Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, the 13th century Sufi mystic and poet who today, quite coincidentally, is the most widely read poet in America. A fervent believer in inter-communal dialogue, understanding and coexistence, the inscription on his shrine invites:
Come, come, whoever you are Wanderer, worshiper, lover or leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again, come, come.
Rumi was a monotheist who believed in religious tolerance, a pluralist who believed that peoples could live in harmony regardless of faith and tradition, in keeping with Islam’s belief that all people of revealed scripture, Ahl al-Kitab, are equal before God.
“We believe in God,” the Quran says. “And in that which has been bestowed from on high upon us, and that which has been bestowed upon Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and their descendants, and that which has been vouchsafed to Moses and Jesus; and that which has been vouchsafed to all the (other) prophets by their Sustainer: we make no distinction between any of them. And it is unto Him that we surrender ourselves.” Quran 2:136.
In an act of true surrender, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, returned to Germany in 1939 from the safety of the United States in order to bear witness.
In 1942, just months before being arrested and eventually executed, he wrote a Christmas essay to his friends in which he concluded: “We have been the silent witnesses of evil deeds. Many storms have gone over our heads. We have learned the art of deception and of equivocal speech. Experience has made us suspicious of others, and prevented us from being open and frank. Bitter conflicts have made us weary and even cynical. Are we still serviceable? It is not the genius that we shall need, not the misanthropist, not the adroit tactician, but honest, straightforward men. Will our spiritual reserves prove adequate and our candor with ourselves remorseless enough to enable us to find our way back again to simplicity and straightforwardness?”
Globally, it’s been a rough year for the straightforward: From Ferguson, Staten Island and Cleveland, from Gaza and Jerusalem, from the ravaging of innocents in Iraq and Syria by ISIS and al-Asad, from the massacre of schoolchildren in Peshawar, Pakistan, and the disappearance of more than 40 students in Iguala, Mexico, our faith in the humanity of our brothers and sisters has been sorely tested over and over again.
We need a break. We need to learn how to breathe again.
As we approach year’s end, let’s listen to Rumi: “In your light I learn how to love. In your beauty, how to make poems. You dance inside my chest where no-one sees you, but sometimes I do, and that sight becomes this art.” Let us, in this season of Hanukkah’s lights, in the light of the star of Bethlehem, in the light that bathes us all, find a path back to beauty, to the straightforwardness and simplicity embraced by the righteous, by prophets, martyrs and lovers.
“Every moment,” Rumi tells us, “is made glorious by the light of Love.”
This column appeared originally in the Concord Monitor.