Ramadan begins this Saturday. Our Muslim friends will observe a month-long period of prayer, reflection, and fasting, much the same as our practices of Lent. I have not engaged in an extended study of world religions, so I do not purport to be an expert in any way. Thus, when a young Muslim friend recently asked me if I truly believe Jesus is the son of God, I must confess, my heart began palpitating. At just 9:30 in the morning, I found myself thinking, surely, this is a conversation one should have over a glass of wine.
Not a drop of wine in sight, I finally responded, “Yes, I believe Jesus is the son of God.” After a pause, I added, “I also believe that God the father of Jesus is the same God you call Allah, the God of Islam.”
Even as the words left my mouth, I wondered, can two so radically different beliefs really be true at once?
The same thought occurred to me the other day when a Jewish friend remarked that she would be busy cooking on Friday, April 15th, preparing for Passover, the celebration of the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt. This to occur on our Good Friday, as we Christians commemorate and enter into Jesus’ suffering and passion and look toward the light and liberation of the resurrection.
The overlaps are not coincidental; they are historically and theologically deeply interwoven. Christians’ observation of Good Friday aligns to the Jewish observation of Passover. Christians, Muslims, and Jews all consider Abraham the patriarch of their religions. We could of course go on: there are entire advanced degrees in the comparative study of world religions and how they connect.
Addressing Catholics in 1964, the Second Vatican Council stated that Muslims “together with us adore the one, merciful God.” During his tenure, Pope St. John Paul II was recognized as a “pioneer of interreligious relations and especially in the worlds of Islam and Judaism.” He visited numerous Muslim countries, spoke positively about Islam, and—controversially—actually kissed the Quran.
Father Damian Howard, provincial superior of the Jesuits in Britain and expert in relations between Christians and Muslims, spoke of the current pope’s continuing conviction in this regard. Just last year, Pope Francis became the first pope to visit Iraq. Father Howard remarked, “Francis follows a deep conviction of the Second Vatican Council that the way to progress in this relationship [between Muslims and Christians] will be through human fraternity, understanding, and encounter.”
Jesus, the great prophet. Jesus, the Rabbi. Jesus, Son of the Triune God. Three very different perspectives, one loving God.
The apparent dissonance between the three identities can and has caused much division between different communities—sometimes leading to violence and devastation. How can all these beliefs be equally true and valid and respected?
In 2015, following the mass shooting at a mosque in San Bernadino, California, our own presiding Bishop Michael Curry shared the story of Albanian Muslims who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.
Bishop Curry said, “They did it because one of the leaders of their day sent the following order to the Muslim community; the order said the Jewish people are your people. They are to be your sisters, your brothers. They are to eat at your tables, to drink from your cups. The Muslim community of Albania saved 2,000 Jews.”
The Bishop related this to advice he’d received from his father, as he was heading off to college: “He said, ‘I want you to treat every girl the way you want somebody else to treat your sister.’”
Bishop Curry explained how he interpreted this advice to how he should treat all people he encountered: “Show them the honor, dignity, respect that you want for your own family and then go out and build a society where every man, woman, and child is a child of God. When we build a society like that, no child will go hungry. When we build a society like that, every man, woman, and child will be loved and respected. When we build a society like that, we will not have to worry about gun violence anymore.
“When we build a society like that, everyone will know who the Episcopal Church is. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
My Muslim friend told me his faith tradition considers Jesus among their greatest prophets. The very same Jesus we Christians worship as the only begotten son of God. As my friend thanks Allah for his blessings, I thank Jesus for mine. One God and Creator: Through Him, all things came into being.
Controversial? Sometimes. Confusing? Definitely. But as I think about it further, it all feels perfectly possible and surprisingly reassuring.
In Lent, we spend time reflecting on Jesus’ sacrifice for us on the cross, on our own mortality, and our need to repent and return to the Lord. This is not all that different from our Muslim and Jewish friends’ fasts and observances. God the Creator is Father of all; no one is excluded from his love and mercy and grace. He has a plan for reconciling all of creation. I don’t need to know all the details of that plan. I just need to trust it will happen.
At Christ Church’s Lenten event last night, the Rev. Freda Marie Brown spoke to how in this time and place, we must find new ways of “imaging” the God who is Creator of all. Not to oversimplify her eloquent message, but one point that resonated for me is how God does not hover above us from the heavens, but rather lives within each and every being he created. Lives in, loves, and calls us to do the same.
Indeed, this world gives us much reason for distrust. In the normalization of alternative realities and half-truths and outright lies, we are no longer shocked by deception and lack of integrity. We have come to expect it. But when I can sit and converse with a Muslim friend or a Jewish friend who share love of the same Creator, I know my trust in one God is not misplaced. I can open myself to an image of God who is more than I can ever imagine or begin to articulate—to all people of all walks of life and of all beliefs.
As we journey into our last few weeks of Lent, we can wish our Muslim friends “Ramadan Mubarak,” meaning, “Have a blessed Ramadan.” When Passover arrives, we can wish our Jewish friends “Chag Sameach” or “Happy Pesach,” meaning Happy Passover. And we can at the same time set our sights toward the empty tomb we will soon stand before—and the hope we find in the resurrection of our beloved Lord Jesus, son of one loving God, Creator of all.