Category Archives: Christmas

Christmas, Hanukkha, and the Qur’an

479113_gallery_5644449997087_jpg_fa_rszdIf you’re looking for an excellent time to introduce something interfaith-y in your church, that time is NOW!

On Christmas Eve, Christians will celebrate the birth of Jesus. And while Christmas isn’t a holy day in Islam, the birth of Jesus is a very big deal. Surah 3:45 in the Qur’an tells the story of the Annunciation this way: [And mention] when the angels said, “O Mary, indeed Allah gives you good tidings of a word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary – disting180px-virgin_mary_and_jesus_old_persian_miniatureuished in this world and the Hereafter and among those brought near [to Allah].

There are some 71 verses in the Quran that refer to Jesus. And Mary (Maryam‎) is revered as one of he most righteous and greatest women in Islam. She’s actually mentioned more times in the Qur’an than in the New Testament. Here’s an interesting video of the Nativity story. You’ll definitely see some differences from our versions. But what a great topic for discussion! Especially if you invite some Muslim friends to join in.

Also on December 24th is the first night of Hanukkah, the eight-day “festival of lights.” As Christians celebrate the Light that has come into the world, Jews will light the first candle on the llmc9237606menorah. Again, differences between our religions – but similarities too.

If these differences raise questions among the people in your church, hallelujah! Now it’s time to enter the intrafaith conversation.

You can check out my website for more information on how to go about doing that. Or simply buy the book and get a group together to explore what it means to be a faithful Christian and to be in respectful relationship with those of other religious traditions.

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News Flash: War on Christmas Is Over

waronchristmas2It’s safe to say “Merry Christmas” again. So says Corey Lewandowski, former campaign manage for the president-elect, declaring victory on the War on Christmas. “It’s OK to say, it’s not a pejorative word anymore.” One of the main contributing factors in this so-called war, according to Lewandowski, et al has been President Obama’s refusal to say it. Despite evidence to the contrary (see a video compilation of President Obama saying “Merry Christmas” over and over again), many people still think that Christmas has been under attack.

I suggest that what is really going on here is the belief of many that it’s Christianity itself that is under attack. The fourth chapter of my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation is entitled “A Question of Identity” because our increasingly diverse world is challenging our assumptions about who we are. This makes us anxious.

Not that this anxiety is unique to Christianity. In her book, That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist, Sylvia Boorstein  reflects on the popularity of Buddhism: “I think the alarm people express about Buddhism has more to do with instinctive fears about tribal survival than philosophical error. I think it’s the natural, self-protective, genetic response of tribes.” images-1

Amidst all this religious diversity, our Christian tribe is anxious. And when we’re anxious and afraid, we’re not readily able to process facts and rational arguments. So one response is to retreat into an exclusivist, triumphalism that claims that we’re right and every one else is wrong. At the other extreme is the unexamined assertion that “we’re all worshipping the same God anyway.”

In the middle is where intrafaith conversations can help. Respectful sharing, listening, and  relationship-building can bridge the divide between those for whom “Merry Christmas” is a sacred cow and those who are able to encompass a multitude of traditions within their “Happy Holidays.”

Maybe when we take the need for this kind of conversation seriously, we’ll finally get to the place where it’s not a matter of saying either “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” but “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays.”

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Why Not an Interfaith Advent?!

In my  book, The INTRAfaith Conversation, I suggest times of the church year when doing something with an interfaith flavor might be appropriate. In this month’s issue of The Interfaith Observer, Vicki Garlock gives us another wonderful option.

LIGHT, BIRTH STORIES, AND FEASTS

Interfaith Options for Christians at Advent

By Vicki Garlock

For Christians, another Advent season will soon be upon us. As one of the quintessential periods in the liturgical calendar, it might seem like the wrong time to be thinking about interfaith efforts. It’s a feeling further heightened by the encroachment of numerous secular obligations. Who has time for “the other” right now? I tend to view things from a slightly different perspective, though, and I think Advent offers a great opportunity to bring a bit of interfaith into your household. Here are a few ideas to get started.

Light to the World

An Advent wreath – Photo: VG

An Advent wreath – Photo: VG

For Christians, Advent is a time of anticipation. Many churches mark that time by lighting candles on an Advent wreath for each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas/Jesus’ birth. With all four candles lit by Christmas Eve, the wreath burns brightest just when the nights are at their longest (at least in the Northern hemisphere).

The Advent wreath therefore serves as a visual reminder that Jesus, for many, is a light to the world. This is most clearly stated in the first few verses of the Gospel of John.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. [John 1:1-5, NRSV translation]

Interestingly, the Qur’an also refers to the message of Jesus as a light.

And in their footsteps We sent Jesus the son of Mary, confirming the Law that had come before him. We sent him the Gospel. Therein was guidance and light, and confirmation of the Law that had come before him, a guidance and an admonition to those who fear Allah. [Surah 5 (al-Maida), verse 46, Yusuf Ali translation]

So an easy way to make your Advent more interfaith is simply to use “Light” as your theme. It’s no accident that Christmas falls around the same time as the winter solstice, and many Advent/Christmas practices are derived from the ancient pagan traditions of Northern Europe. Teaching your kids about the winter solstice through books, recipes, and crafts is a good place to begin.

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The Winter Solstice (written by Ellen Jackson and illustrated by Jan Davey Ellis) and The Shortest Day (written by Wendy Pfeffer and illustrated by Jesse Reisch) are both good book options. And even though Circle Round (by Starhawk, Diane Baker, and Anne Hill) was published in 2000, it’s still a great go-to book for crafts and activities. Because pagan traditions are grounded in our relationship with the earth, focus your activities on plants currently available in your geographical area. Create a small home altar and decorate it with winter fruits and greenery. Bake some pumpkin seeds or flavored nuts. You could even teach older kids how to can/freeze food to last through the winter.

Hanukkah is another one of those light-related holidays that happens at this time of the year. Start with one of the many books available. There are board books, like the Hanukkah “touch and feel” book by Roger Priddy and My First Chanukkah by Tomie dePaola, for toddlers. For slightly older kids, you’ll find pop-up books covering the various Hanukkah traditions, like lighting a menorah or spinning a dreidel. One book, Maccabee! (written by Tilda Balsley and illustrated by David Harrington), even portrays the legendary brothers who took the temple back from the Seleucids, as super heroes. Hanukkah books are found in most local libraries, and many craft/discount stores now sell Hanukkah-related products. You can also find resources at your local synagogue, which offers a great excuse to visit with your kids!

Advent Stories from the Islamic Perspective
Another way to make your Advent more interfaith is to read Islamic versions of typical Advent stories. For example, many Muslims are familiar with the story of Mary/Maryam being told she is pregnant with Jesus/Isa (sometimes spelled Eesa). In that account, Hannah, Maryam’s mother, promised to dedicate her unborn child to God/Allah. Years later, as a young woman serving in the temple, Maryam was visited by the angel Gabriel who told her that she would give birth to a son. Some of the story can be found in Surah 19 (called Maryam) of the Qur’an.

He said: I am but a messenger from your Lord that I may bestow on you a pure boy. She said: How shall I have a boy, when no mortal has touched me, nor am I an unchaste woman?” He said: Thus it shall be; your Lord said: It is insignificant for Me; and: We shall assign him as a Sign to humanity, and as a mercy from Us. It was a decreed command. [Surah 19 (Maryam), Verses 19-21, Laleh Bakhtiar translation]

The Qur’an is non-narrative, for the most part, but Muslims do read stories to their kids based on Qur’anic passages. A good, kid-friendly version of Gabriel’s announcement to Maryam, the subsequent birth of Isa, and Isa’s first days can found here. Note how in the Islamic narrative, Isa is able to talk at birth. On the right is a kid-friendly video of the birth story. The video is seven minutes long, but the narrative about Zachariah, Mary, the birth of Jesus, and Jesus’ first words are in the first 5 minutes (before the quiz). For interested adults, a more complete version of the story, with specific excerpts from the Qur’an, can be found here.

Birth Stories from Other Faith Traditions

You can also make your Advent more interfaith by focusing on amazing birth stories from other traditions, several of which include the idea of a virgin birth. One of the most popular comes from the Buddhist tradition. According to that narrative, an elephant with a lotus flower was responsible for Queen Maya’s pregnancy of Gautama Buddha. In most versions, the Buddha takes seven steps as a newborn infant. In some versions, angels appear and the baby Buddha speaks (much like Isa does in the Islamic narrative). The Life of the Buddha site has kid-friendly narratives of Queen Maya’s elephant dream and the Buddha’s birth. Finally, the 8-minute video above, in English, tells the story.

Add an Intrafaith Twist
If an interfaith Advent seems too far removed from the spirit of the season, you might want to focus on various Advent practices within the Christian tradition. One of the most notable is the Nativity Fast observed in the Orthodox tradition from mid-November until Christmas Eve. Here the word “fast” does not mean a total absence of food. Instead, Orthodox Christians abstain from meat, dairy, fish, wine, and oil, except on certain days of the week. The specifics, if you’re interested, are complex but fascinating and can be found here.

As many Orthodox moms have discovered, the Nativity Fast diet is closely related to a vegan diet, which means many families break out their vegan recipes for the holiday season. One post offering great Orthodox Advent recipes can be found here, but you can also simply search the internet for vegan recipes that you and your kids might enjoy. Just make sure they don’t require any oil if you really want to stick with the rules!

In Short…
It’s easy to assume that Advent offers few or no opportunities to interact with other faith traditions. After all, the entire focus is on preparing for the arrival of Jesus. However, a little creative thinking reveals several possibilities. During this unsettling time of the year – when the pendulum swings wildly between “traditional Christianity” and “rampant commercialism” – consider a move away from both ends of the continuum, and bring a bit of interfaith into your holiday season.

Epiphany Magi(c)

3-wise-men-blueEpiphany is a really good time to introduce both interfaith and intrafaith themes to a congregation.

The story of the magi in Matthew’s gospel is a perfect example of “passing over and coming back,” the concept introduced in John Dunne’s book, The Way of All the Earth:
“What seems to be occurring is a phenomenon we might call ‘passing over,’ passing from one culture to another, from one way of life to another, from one religion to another. Passing over is a shifting of standpoint, a going over to the standpoint of another culture, another way of life, another religion.

“It is followed by an equal and opposite process we might call ‘coming back,’ coming back with new insight to one’s own culture, one’s own way of life, one’s own religion. . .

“Passing over and coming back, it seems, is the spiritual adventure of our time.”

The Magi, who I like to believe Matthew would have envisioned as Zoroastrian priests, passed over into Judaism in order to honor a sacred moment in that religion. A non-canonical text from the sixth century, The Arabic Infancy Gospel of the Savior, tells the story this way:

“And it came to pass, when the Lord Jesus was born at Bethlehem of Judaea, in the time of King Herod, behold, magi came from the east to Jerusalem, as Zeraduscht* had predicted; and there were with them gifts, gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And they adored Him, and presented to Him their gifts. Then the Lady Mary took one of the swaddling-bands, and, on account of the smallness of her means, gave it to them; and they received it from her with the greatest marks of honour. And in the same hour there appeared to them an angel in the form of that star which had before guided them on their journey; and they went away, following the guidance of its light, until they arrived in their own country.”
*Zeraduscht is a form of Zarathushtra, the founding Prophet of Zoroastrianism

In Matthew, the Magi passed over and thenwise crossed back to their own home and their own religion. I imagine a version of the story, in which these Zoroastrian holy ones brought back learnings and insights about Judaism that became part of their own practice.

But I also imagine an intrafaith discussion on the way home. “I agree with this.” “But what about that?” “How does that fit in with what Zoroaster teaches?” These Magi might help us to follow the star of Wisdom be our into our own intrafaith journeys.

This Epiphany, how might you and/or your congregation pass over into, learn about, and experience a different tradition?

How might you and/or your congregation cross back into Christianity and delve into the insights and questions that arose from that encounter?

Blessed Epiphany, O Wise Ones. Journey well!

Christmas in the Qur’an

Some years ago, a seminary student told me that, according to some of her professors, the interfaith Christology question is going to be the “next big issue” confronting the church. Theologian  Kristin Johnston Largen, from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, has picked up the banner. In her book Finding God Among Our Neighbors, Neighbors: An Interfaith Systematic Theology, she writes:
“. . .issues of Christology cannot be avoided in an interreligious conversation that professes to take Christian faith claims seriously.”islams_jesus

It’s already happening in our Christian/ Muslim book study. As we began reading Islam’s Jesus by Zeki Saritoprak, we Christians soon realized that there’s a whole lot about Jesus in the Qur’an, particularly about his birth. Check out the story of the Annunciation:

“And mention in the Book, Maryam, when she withdrew from her family to a place facing east. She placed a screen from them; then We sent to her our angel (Jibrael, or Gabriel), and he appeared before her in the form of a man in full human form. She said: 
’I seek refuge with The Most Beneficent God from you, if you do fear Him.’ The angel said: 
’I am only a Messenger from your Lord, to announce to you the gift of a righteous son.’ She said: ‘How can I have a son, when no man has touched me, nor am I unchaste?’ The angel said: ‘So it will be, your Lord said: ‘That is easy for Me: And to appoint him as a sign to mankind and a mercy from Us ‘, and it is a matter already decreed.'”—Qur’an 19:16-21

As we listened to our Muslim friends tell of their devotion to both Mary and Jesus, we were challenged to rethink our own understandings of who and what Jesus was and is. Surprisingly to us, Jesus is called the Messiah (al-Maseeh) at least nine times in the Qur’an. But, we had to ask, what does ‘messiah’ mean? We already knew that there are differences between the  Jewish and Christian messianic job descriptions. And so it is with Islam. The Qur’an indeed identifies Jesus as the Messiah, a messenger who will bring justice, prosperity and peace. But it does not agree that the Messiah is the son of God.
Indeed, they are unbelievers who say, ‘God is the Messiah, the son of Mary.’ (5:72)
The Messiah, son of Mary, was no other than a messenger; messengers before him had indeed passed away. (5:75)

Now, for orthodox Christians, the answer is clear-cut. Jesus is “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made.”

But many Christians are reexamining the Jesus 0f the Nicene Creed. Coming from both our expanding knowledge of the cosmos and of other Christologies from other places and people, we’re no longer satisfied with outdated “substance” language.

We’re also not satisfied with dualistic separations between human and divine, heaven and earth, and matter and spirit. As we think more about the interconnectedness of everyone and everything, the question of who and what Jesus was and is comes into play. 

Personally, I find great meaning in distinguishing between the Jesus of history and the cosmic Christ. I value both. And find that this Christology can be very interfaith-friendly. 

We’ve only begun to delve into these ways of talking about Jesus with our Muslim book study friends. I’m pretty sure that the Christians in the group are all on the ‘progressive’ end of the spectrum. How we will explain some of these non-orthodox ideas and how they will receive them remains to be seen. 

The importance of this study, in my opinion, is not only the interfaith dialogue we’re having between Muslims and Christians, but also the intrafaith one we’re having among ourselves as we work through our own answer to Jesus’ question: 

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A Very Cosmic Christmas

41F-iLEWyyL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_I just finished reading the updated version of Matthew Fox’s Confessions: The Making of a Postdenominational Priest. I read the original when it was published back in 1997 and was excited to see additions to the story.

I was especially interested in the chapter about the Cosmic Mass – one of my best discoveries when I  moved to the Bay Area. Back then, as recounted in the book, TCM was held monthly at the Historic Sweet’s Ballroom in Oakland. There I was introduced to the spiritual paths of creation spirituality, drawn from the traditions of the mystics: via positiva, via negativa, via creativa, and via transformativa. 

I was just beginning my doctoral work in matters of interfaith and intrafaith, so TCM was a mind-blowing example of how a traditionally Christian ritual (a mass that includes Communion) could be expanded to be inclusive of all people, all traditions, and even all of creation.

When I became the pastor of First United Lutheran Church in San Francisco, I began to incorporate these ideas into our own rituals. Even though my attempt to have the congregation enter into the via negativa didn’t work as well in our setting, I did discover that many people remembered my explanations of the four paths (maybe it worked better than I think!).

This month, I was finally able to attend one of the Cosmic Masses now being held in different locations in the area. And I am so glad that I did! The theme was “Embracing Darkness and Light” and altars had been created around the room: one for the Christian Christmas story (with the addition of a Qur’an, which includes the story of the birth of Jesus), one for Kwanza, one for Hanukkah, and one for the pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice.

As we entered into the via creativa, the blessing and distribution of the bread and wine of Communion, I realized just how brilliantly Matthew Fox has transformed what has been an exclusive in-house ritual into a radically inclusive one. TCM is theologically and liturgically grounded, yet reaches out into new ways of expressing ancient wisdom and truth.

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I fully intend to continue bringing ideas from TCM into my own preaching, teaching, and worship planning. Not that we’ll ever be able to recreate what Matthew Fox and his team are able to do. But I believe that it’s important to adapt the wisdom we learn from others into our own settings.

Which brings me to Christmas. I’ve come to the realization that the myth of the birth of Jesus is an archetypal story that can appeal to a wider audience than just Christians. It can even appeal to those Christians who can’t subscribe to the orthodox teachings of the Church or to a literal reading of the gospel stories.

But if we’re going to appeal to people of other traditions, and to the “church alumni association” (as Bishop John Shelby Spong calls those who have left), and to the “spiritual but not religious,” and to the people in our own congregations who just don’t buy all the things they were taught they had to believe – then we’re going to have to make some changes in the way we present the story. This is the intrafaith work of which I am so fond. And I have to say that this work has enabled me, after many years of liturgical Scrooginess, to reclaim the Christmas story.

And one of the best resources for seeing how it can be done -and is being done – is to go and experience a Cosmic Mass. And read Matthew Fox’s book!

The entire book is, of course, well worth reading and inspires more ideas for this blog. Another post might be the implications of changing our baptism liturgies to reflect a theology of original blessing rather than original sin. Although – back to Christmas – we changed the first scripture readings in the traditional Service of Lessons & Carols from the ones that set up the story of “The Fall” as the reason for “God sending Jesus to save us from our sins” to one of original blessing.

Speaking as a parish pastor, down here in the trenches, there are ways, great and small, that we can change the Church.

And as we do so, in the tradition of TCM, may we dance!  Have a very Cosmic Christmas!

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pictures from http://thecosmicmass.com