Last week, walking down Exeter’s Water Street after a hearty lunch at the Green Bean, a friend and I had a rather unsettling encounter. Last year I gave him a black and white checked Arab kaffiyeh and he had brought it to lunch so I could show him how to fold it and wear it as a scarf as I do – which I did.
So there we were; two old friends – he warmly wearing his kaffiyeh on a sunny cold winter day in small-town New Hampshire – sharing stories and making plans – when we came face-to-face with the reality of what many often experience.
A woman suddenly veered from her path and came right up to my friend, got right in his face and, unsmilingly with neither humor nor generosity, sneered “Merry Christmas” and quickly moved on.
A bit surprised and shaken, he asked me, “Wow, do you think that was passive aggressive?”
“Yes,” I replied, “Welcome to my world!”
I watched the woman continue eastward neither greeting nor acknowledging anyone else. She soon disappeared, an ugly stain on a beautiful day.
What, I wonder, would have been her reaction if she’d known that the man she verbally assaulted was a Jew wearing an Arab scarf and that I, the Arab, scarfless, was his witness.
Merry Christmas, stranger: We forgive you for trespassing upon us.
Certainly, in Exeter, she was an anomaly, but she was also a reminder that not everyone handles with grace and generosity the varieties, richness and passions of religious experience.
At this time of seasonal feasts of multiple faiths, at a time when most communities and residents, believers, secularists and revelers set aside differences and band together to warm their hearts and souls with varieties of prayer, feasts and celebration – often within days of each other – not everyone is comfortable embracing the diverse and pluralistic community we’ve become.
“O men! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another.” Quran 49:13
Last week, on Dec. 17, Muslims gathered in Konya, Turkey, to honor Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi monotheist, mystic and poet who believed in religious tolerance, that peoples could live together in harmony regardless of faith and traditions. The inscription on Rumi’s shrine reads:
“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.”
Then, the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, heralded Shab-e Yalda, an ancient pre-Islamic Indo-Iranian celebration of the birth of the solar divinity Mithras, the god of light, said to have been born of a virgin at dawn on the longest night of the year.
Today, even in conservative Iran, Yalda remains a popular feast day and is celebrated not only in the Islamic Republic but in parts of Afghanistan, Kurdistan, the Caucasus and Central Asia – and among Zoroastrians around the world. Candles are lighted, prayers are performed and special meals, with lots of dried and fresh winter fruit.
Then, in a felicitous convergence of the 25th day of Kislev in the Hebrew calendar, and Dec. 25, 2016, this weekend candles will be lighted in the homes, windows and houses of worship of both Christians celebrating the birth of Jesus and Jews commemorating the rededication of their Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
“Come, yet again, come, come.”
For Jews, as a friend of mine shared this week at an interfaith gathering, Hanukkah is the annual eight-day holiday that commemorates the time a small band of Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, reclaimed their Holy Temple in Jerusalem from the Seleucid Empire and rededicated it to the service of God.
How bright those lights.
“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.
Christmas, the day Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus whom they believe to be the Son of God, is by far the most popular feast day in America. Today, across our nation, church bells will peal, carols will be sung and hallelujahs will echo across the hills.
It’s a schizophrenic time. The Constitution tells us that the Public Square should be neutral and secular while at the same time Christmas is a federal holiday.
On the other hand, having been raised Christian and remembering visions of sugar plums that once danced in my head and today, as a Muslim, believing Jesus is our most revered prophet after Prophet Muhammad, I both love the celebration and today honor Jesus’s birth.
Today, though, we need to tread softly. With a populace more ethnically, racially and religiously diverse than ever, Christmas is both a festive time and a time when many non-Christians can – if someone becomes exclusionary or aggressive as my friend and I experienced on Water Street – feel marginalized.
Together we must learn to rise above our tribes, our associations, our comforts, to embrace the other, to love our neighbors as we love God, to heed the universal call for social justice and strive to follow paths toward peace.
Together, let us find warmth in Hanukkah’s light and in the light of Bethlehem’s star, in the mystery of Yalda and in Kwanzaa’s traditions guided by Nguzo Saba.
Let us, guided by that light, as the days again grow longer, find the straight path back to beauty, to the righteous, to prophets, martyrs and lovers.
“Every moment” Rumi tells us, “is made glorious by the light of Love.”