The Prime Minister’s Support Hose

Has there ever been a prime minister or president or political leader anywhere, in any era, who used his socks to send out political messages?  I can’t think of anyone.  When Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau went to NATO headquarters, he wore NATO-themed hose. (Hose, a seldom-used word today meaning stockings or socks.)  When he attended the LGBT rainbow flag-raising ceremony on Parliament Hill in Ottawa recently, he wore rainbow-striped socks.  When the prime minister gave a speech at a Muslim welfare centre, he wore Muslim-themed socks.

For a political leader who likes to demonstrate his support by what he puts on his feet (weird, no?), the fact that the Toronto Gay Pride Parade and the Muslim festival of Eid Mubarak fell on the same day–as they did this year–must have posed something of a dilemma for Canada’s PM.  What socks could he wear that would affirm both groups?  He decided on a pair of striped socks inscribed with the words Eid Mubarak.  It didn’t really matter that the stripes in the Eid Mubarak socks were not the same six stripes of colour that make up the rainbow flag.

How a pair of socks celebrating an Islamic festival came to be in the PM’s sock drawer is interesting:  The Muslim owners of a Toronto-based company that sells Islam-themed socks had enlisted a Muslim member of the Liberal government to present the socks as a gift to the prime minister.  On June 25, Canada’s prime minister wore his gift of Eid Mubarak socks, first as he attended a ‘Faith and Pride’ outdoor church service, then as he marched at the head of the Toronto Gay Pride parade.

Given Islam’s view of homosexuality, I wonder how the Muslim sock-manufacturers reacted when they saw their Eid socks at a Gay Pride parade.  And what about the feelings of the Muslim-community at large.  The PM’s actions could only have been an affront to devout Muslims.  In the hadith (the sayings and actions of Muhammad), Islam’s prophet called for those who perform homosexual acts, not to be celebrated, but to be executed (Sunan Abu Dawud 4462).  In 40 out of 57 Muslim-majority countries and territories homosexuality is a criminal offense and gays can be fined, flogged, and jailed.  In ten Muslim-majority countries, homosexual activity can lead to execution.   And in two countries, it does.  Iran hangs gays in public; the Islamic State (or ISIS) hurls gay men to their deaths from roof tops.

Eid Mubarak socks at a Gay Pride parade?  What was the prime minister thinking?  The answer lies in what the PM said before the parade.  Sporting a rainbow-striped maple leaf painted on his cheek, he commented:  “It’s all about how we celebrate the multiple layers of identities that make Canada extraordinary and strong.” The prime minister’s socks were meant to show his support for two of those layers:  the LGBT and Muslim communities.  The PM’s socks were a sign of his commitment to inclusiveness: the highest ideal to which a just society should now aspire.

What is becoming clear, though, is that, even as Western political leaders tout the virtues of inclusiveness–some of them like Trudeau through their socks–some layers of society are being deliberately excluded.  The Toronto chapter of Black Lives Matter prevented the Toronto police float and uniformed police officers from marching in the Gay Pride parade.  South of the border, in Chicago, marchers carrying rainbow flags with an Israeli flag imposed on top were excluded from a parade of dykes because the Israeli flag was deemed to be ‘triggering’.

The idea of what an inclusive society looks like seems to be changing.  When you hear political leaders speak of an inclusive society, don’t assume they include you.  I won’t.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Fig Tree without Figs

No, not mine; my fig tree continues to thrive.  I’m already contemplating what to do with the growing figs–all four of them–when they are ripe:  Will I eat them raw, or will I grill them?  And when will they be ripe enough to eat?  I squeeze them every few days to check (probably not a good idea).

More FIg)

(This is a photo of my fig tree taken today.)

As I watch the figs on my fig tree grow bigger with each passing day, I’m reminded of another fig tree in the Bible: the one that Jesus encountered on the road between Bethany and Jerusalem during what has come to be called  ‘Passion Week’. The encounter is described in both Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels (Mt  21:18-19, 20-22; Mk 11:12-14, 20-25).  The encounter went like this:  As Jesus was returning to Jerusalem after spending the night in Bethany, he became hungry.  Spotting a lone fig tree by the side of the road, he went over to it to get some figs to eat, but he found no fruit on the tree, only leaves.

Until I had a fig tree growing in my own backyard, I had no idea just how unusual that would be.  As I observed my own tree after the period of winter dormancy had ended, I noticed little green swellings–immature figs; leaves made their appearance after.  This growth pattern would be true of the fig trees that grew in Judaea as well.

Fig1

(This is what my fig tree looked like back in April.  Jesus’ encounter with the barren fig tree occurred just prior to the Passover in the Hebrew month of Nisan (our March/April).

If there were leaves on the fig tree encountered by Jesus, there should have been evidence of fruit.  Finding no fruit, Jesus said to the tree: “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” (Mk 11:14). In Matthew’s account, the fig tree withered immediately (21:19).  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples observe the withered tree the next morning as they head back into Jerusalem (11:20). At first glance, Jesus’ destruction of the fig tree seems like a gross over-reaction.  After all, as Mark notes, Jesus found nothing but leaves for it was not the season for figs (11:13).  The first crop of figs does not ripen until June.

To make sense of Jesus’ harsh reaction, Bible scholars suggest that we think of it as a prophetic gesture, or sign-action.  Hebrew prophets not infrequently dramatized their messages in order to get their points across. Often their actions took bizarre forms.  Consider Jeremiah, for example, who was directed by the Lord to buy an earthenware jar, then take some of the elders and some of the senior priests, and together go out to the valley of Ben-hinnon.  There, Jeremiah was to break the jar in front of them to illustrate how God was going to break the people and the city of Jerusalem in judgment (Jer 19:1-15).

Jesus’ prophetic gesture was directed at a fig tree in the company of his disciples.  Why a fig tree?  The answer lies in the writings of the Hebrew prophets Jeremiah, Hosea, Joel, and Micah where Israel is not infrequently pictured as a fig tree.  In the book of Hosea, God says:  “I found Israel like grapes in the wilderness; / I saw your forefathers as the earliest fruit on the fig tree in its first season” (9:10).  In Joel, God calls Israel “my fig tree” (1:7).

History confirms that Jesus’ destruction of the fig tree was indeed a prophetic sign-action.  In AD 70, thirty-seven years after Jesus’ crucifixion (believed to have taken place in AD 33), Roman armies penetrated Jerusalem’s walls, destroying the Temple and razing the city. Not one stone of the magnificent Temple was left standing on another, just as Jesus had predicted (Mk 13:2). Sixty-five years later,  in AD 135, the Roman emperor Hadrian founded a pagan city, Aelia Capitolina, on the ruins of Jerusalem.  Jews were forbidden access to the new city built now according to Hellenistic plans.  Where the Jewish Temple once stood, Hadrian had a temple erected to the pagan god Jupiter Capitolinus.  And, in order to erase all Jewish connection to the land, Hadrian renamed what was once the Roman province of Judea as Syria Palaestina.  The fig tree had indeed withered to its very roots!

That Jesus’ ‘cursing’ of the fig tree was a predictive act is clear.  That said, it was obviously an indictment of Israel’s spiritual barrenness as well.  Not only had Israel’s religious leaders failed to recognize Jesus as their Messiah, they had become his fiercest opponents.  There was an outward display of religiosity–like the showy leaves on the fig tree–but no faith.  That would be true of many churches today as well.

As I read the story of the withered fig tree, I can’t help but think how differently I must view it compared to someone reading it in, say, 1017 or 1517 or 1917.  Unlike earlier generations of Bible-readers, I am part of that generation which has witnessed the return of the Jewish people to their historic homeland; the creation of the modern state of Israel; and the re-taking of Jerusalem.  To me, these events say that the story of God’s ‘fig tree’, Israel, is still unfolding.

 

 

 

 

My Fig Tree Is Making Scripture Come Alive

Last summer I was given a small fig tree to grow in a container in my backyard.  I hadn’t  realized that such a gardening feat was even possible until I saw a fig tree with ripening figs, growing in a container on a friend’s small wooden deck.  I knew then that I wanted one for my back yard, too.  Watching an exotic tree grow would be fascinating, I thought, and if all went well, in time I might have the satisfaction of eating a couple of my own home-grown figs.

There were no visible changes in my little fig tree before it shed its few leaves and went dormant for the winter.  With the coming of spring, my fig tree suddenly came to life!  First there were barely-discernable tiny green bumps on the two stems, signs of fruit to come; then leaves began to sprout.  No visible flowers, though.  The tiny, green flowers produced by a fig tree grow inside a receptacle called a syncomium, which eventually becomes the fig.

As I watched the transformation unfolding before my eyes, I was reminded of Jesus’ response to his disciples who wanted to know when the prophesied destruction of the Jerusalem Templewould take place:  “[L]earn the parable from the fig tree:  when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near, ” he had said to them (Mark 13:28).

Fig1

My Fig Tree As It Begins to Grow Fruit and Leaves in the Spring

As I thought about this, other occurrences of fig trees in the Bible, both literal and figurative, came to mind.  The first mention of a fig tree comes in the third chapter of Genesis in the story of ‘the Fall’.

The Garden of Eden must have been indescribably beautiful:  “the LORD GOD made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground–trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food” (Ge 2:9). Only two trees in the garden are named:  the tree of life standing in the very middle of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:9).  Out of all the trees in the garden, only one was ‘off limits’ to Adam and Eve:  the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  If they were to eat of it, God warned them, they would die (2:17).

Nevertheless, our first ancestors, seduced by the lies of the crafty serpent, did eat the fruit (3:6). (What kind of fruit it was, we don’t know, but it probably wasn’t an apple.)  Instead of finding themselves clothed in fine white linen like gods, Adam and Eve discovered that they were stark naked, and so they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves up before running off to hide from God among the trees (3:7-8).

Growing up on the prairies and thus having no idea what a fig tree looked like, I had envisioned Adam and Eve frantically stitching together leaves about the size of arugula to make some sort of covering.  Their leafy creations have been translated variously by Bible translators:  aprons (KJV), loincloths (ESV), loin coverings (NASB), and coverings (NIV).  Knowing now just how big fig leaves get to be, even on a tree as small as mine, I think they were able to put something together quite quickly.

My Fig Tree at the Time of Writing This Blog

The primordial pair chose what was no doubt one of the largest leaves among the trees in the garden  The suggestive shape of the leaf may have had something to do with their choice as well!  Medieval artists seem to have thought so.  Adam and Eve and their fig leaves were depicted frequently in medieval art.

Albrecht_Dürer_-_Adam_and_Eve_(Prado)_2

A Painting of Adam and Eve by Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) (Public Domain)

Making coverings from fig leaves was an act of desperation by the primordial couple, experiencing shame and fear for the  first time.  Sin had entered the picture, ending their intimate relationship with God.  Yet, even before God drove them out of the garden, He announced His plan to restore that relationship.   He cursed the serpent and declared war on him:  “…I will put enmity / Between you and the woman, / And between your seed and her seed; / He shall bruise you on the head, / And you shall bruise him on the heel” (3:15).  Christians believe that the “seed of the woman” is a reference to Jesus and, thus, this passage has come to be known as the Protoevangelium, the ‘first gospel’.  The good news:   the estrangement between God and humans will not be permanent.

 

 

The Pope’s Politics vs. Trump’s Christianity

The spat between His Holiness Pope Francis and GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump appears to have ended. The unholy brouhaha began when Trump, speaking on Fox Business Network’s “Varney & Co.”, called the pontiff “a very political person” who didn’t understand the dangers an open border with Mexico posed to the US.  “I think Mexico got him to do it,” claimed Trump, “because they want to keep the border just the way it is.”

The pope pushed back by calling Trump’s profession of Christian faith into question, averring that “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not of building bridges, is not Christian.”  Trump, in turn, called the pope’s questioning of his faith “disgraceful.”  Realizing that a fight with the pope would not likely endear him to Catholic voters, Trump has since assured everyone that he actually has great respect for the pope.

Pope Francis, to quote ‘the Donald’, is “a very political person.”   Just how political is the pontiff?   On the last night of his visit to Mexico, the pope, hoping to influence the outcome of the upcoming US presidential election (what other explanation could there be?)  turned the celebration of the Catholic Mass into a piece of political theatre.  On the evening of 17 February, the pope, accompanied by some 200,000 people, gathered on the southern shore of the Rio Grande River across from the city of El Paso, Texas, for an open-air mass.  On the US side of the river stood about four hundred or so.  During the ceremony on the Mexican side, the pope laid flowers on a memorial dedicated to those who had perished trying to reach the US.  He lamented “the forced migration” of thousands of Central Americans. As the pope well knows, what to do about the US-Mexican border is a huge issue in the 2016 election.  Deliberately injecting himself into the debate as he has done, the pope made it clear where he stands.

How political is the pope?   In 2014, the pope wrote a letter to Pres. Obama, urging the president to pursue a closer relationship with Cuba and to ease the trade restrictions imposed on the island by the US after Fidel Castro’s Communist Revolution.  Pope Francis, who acted as mediator between the US and Cuba throughout 18 months of secret negotiations, can be credited with the recent restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries.  (Interestingly, the Holy See never broke off relations with Cuba even after Castro imprisoned or exiled the priests and confiscated all Catholic property on the island.) In protesting the economic embargo imposed by the US, the Cuban people knew they had an ally in the Vatican, which had always objected to the embargo on the grounds that impacted most adversely Cuba’s poor.

Overcome with gratitude for the economic lifeline Pope Francis has thrown him,  Raul Castro gushed on a recent visit to the Vatican:  “If the pope continues to speak like this, sooner or later I will start praying again and I will return to the Catholic church–and I’m not saying this jokingly.”  A new Catholic Church is slated to be built on the island at Sandino, the first one since the 1959 Revolution. Strangely enough, since the restoration of diplomatic relations with the US, the number of imprisoned dissidents has reached the highest level in five years.

How political is the pope?  Probably the pope’s greatest political achievement since assuming St. Peter’s Throne  has been the historic meeting between him and His Holiness  Patriarch Kirill, head of Russia’s Orthodox Church, which took place on 12 February at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba.  This was the first meeting between a Catholic pope and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church since the Great Schism of 1054. This was not a political meeting, however, the pope claimed:  the purpose of the meeting was for the two branches of the church to deal jointly with the dire problem of persecuted Christians in the Middle East.   The pope might have not regarded their meeting as political, but it was nevertheless.

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Photo from Asia News .it  01/27/2016

The meeting could never have taken place if Russian President Putin had not first given the patriarch the ‘green light’ to attend.  His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, the first patriarch since the breakup of the USSR, is closer to the Kremlin than any of his predecessors, even to calling Putin a “miracle from God.”  [I wrote about the unusually close relationship between Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church in a previous blog (2 January 2015).] The pope’s meeting with the saintly-looking Russian patriarch (rumoured to be, like Putin, a former KGB officer) helped to restore–somewhat–the image of Putin’s Russia in the West.

Trump was correct when he called Pope Francis a very political person.  How does one account for the pope’s political activism?  The answer is:  Latin American liberation theology aka ‘Christian’ Marxism.  Liberation theology puts social action on an equal footing with the gospel message.  In the eyes of the Argentine pope, someone who would build a wall to keep migrants out is not a Christian.

Is Trump a Christian?  When it comes to determining who is or is not a Christian, it is not our place to judge, but, as the saying goes, that doesn’t mean we can’t be ‘fruit inspectors’.

Pope Francis: Peace through Religious Reconciliation

Economic sanctions had barely been lifted when President Rouhani was off to France and Italy to drum up business for Iran.  His visit will forever be remembered–not for anything he said or did, but for the silly actions of Italy’s Prime Minister Renzi who had Roman statues covered up so their nudity would not offend the Muslim guest.  This incident has grabbed most of the world’s attention and, as a consequence, scant notice has been taken of the closed-door meeting in the Apostolic Palace between the pope and the Iranian president.

At the end of the 40-minute session, the Vatican issued a communique which described the talks between the two as “cordial.”  Among the topics discussed was “the important role that Iran is called upon to fulfill, along with other countries in the region, to promote suitable political solutions to the problems afflicting the Middle East, and to counter the spread of terrorism and arms trafficking [emphasis mine].” Iran, a designated sponsor of terrorism, has a role to play?  Iran, a country that engages in acts of terrorism worldwide through its proxy Hizbollah?  Is the pope serious??

The Vatican also reported that, during the meeting, “common spiritual values emerged.”  At the end of their discussions, the pope presented Rouhani with a medallion depicting Saint Martin giving his military cloak to a shivering beggar.  (This is the traditional gift given by the pope to visiting statesmen.)  Pope Francis called the medallion “a symbol of gratuitous fraternity.”

That the pope would have a “cordial” meeting with a world leader who, two days before his inauguration, referred to Israel as a “wound on the body of the Islamic world” that “should be removed” is disturbing to supporters of the Jewish state.  There is no evidence that Rouhani has changed his view of Israel since then.

The pope’s meeting with Rouhani may be shocking to some, but it was predictable.  Since assuming the papacy in March 2013, Pope Francis has made outreach to the Muslim world a priority.  The lengths to which he is prepared to go in pursuit of this goal are unprecedented for a pope.  Nine months after taking office, the pontiff invited the secretary-general of the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), at that time Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, to the Vatican for an audience, something no previous pope had ever done.  (The OIC forms the largest voting bloc in the UN.  This is the same organization that would like to have all criticism of Islam criminalized!). The two discussed Ihsanoglu’s vision of an historic reconciliation between Islam and Christianity, based on their common Abrahamic roots, a reconciliation vital for global peace and security.  The pope agreed to work towards making Ihsanoglu’s vision a reality.

Anyone following the pope can see that he has been true to his word.  In another unprecedented act for a pope,  Pope Francis made a trip to the Holy Land in May 2014 accompanied by two Argentine friends, religious leaders from the two other so-called Abrahamic faiths:  Rabbi Skorka and Omar Aboud.  While there, the pope also met with the current patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Bartholomew I.

A month later, the pope invited Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas to join him at a prayer summit in the papal gardens behind St. Peter’s Basilica.  In his address to those gathered in the garden, the pope called the presence of the two presidents, one a Jew and one a Muslim, a “great sign of brotherhood which you offer [Peres and Abbas] as children of Abraham.”  Allah’s name was invoked for the very first time in the Vatican (albeit out back in the gardens).

This past November, during his visit to a mosque in the capital city of the war-ravaged Central African Republic, the pope told the people gathered there that “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters.”

Are the Catholic pope and Rouhani, a trained Shia cleric, “brothers” as the pope claims? Paragraph 841 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), which deals with the Catholic Church’s relationship with Muslims, reads as follows:

The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day [emphasis mine].

The Catholic Catechism claims that Catholics and Muslims “adore” the one God.  The Qur’an, on the other hand, makes it very clear that Muslims do not adore the God of the Christians!  Quite the contrary.  The Qur’an denies the existence of the Trinity (sura 5:73); denies the deity of Jesus (sura 5:72); and denies the divine Sonship of Jesus (sura 19:35).  Far from adoring the Christian God, the Qur’an issues repeated warnings of the “painful doom” (sura 5:73) that awaits anyone who ascribes “a partner to Allah” (sura 3:64).  Allah is not a ‘father’ and he most certainly does not have a ‘son’!

To overcome what are insurmountable theological differences, the pope (and he is not alone) has turned back to the patriarch Abraham.   Jews, Christians and Muslims are ‘brothers and sisters’ on the basis of their common ancestor, Abraham.  The notion that Jews, Christians, and Muslims are spiritual kin is gaining traction beyond the walls of the Vatican.  At the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC  on 4 February, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, herself a Catholic, invoked the name of Islam’s prophet Muhammad. “The same message stands at the center of the Torah and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad too,” she said before reading from the Gospel of John.

Indications are that Pope Francis has a vision of religious reconciliation not limited to the three  Abrahamic faiths.   A video released by the Vatican on the Feast of Epiphany in January, for example, included not only a Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim, but a Buddhist as well.  In the video, the speakers express a common belief in love.  Are we looking at a future world religion without any dogmas or doctrines,  a world religion whose adherents share only a common belief in love?  That’s what the Vatican video would seem to suggest.

 

 

 

Common Ground or Shaky Ground?

It’s the custom on January 1 to wish everyone from loved ones to complete strangers a “Happy New Year.”  I hate to be a pessimist but, despite all the well-wishing, I suspect 2016 is going to look an awful lot like the year that has just passed.  Tragically, a shooting at a bar in Tel Aviv supports my claim:  It’s only day one of the New Year, and already the murder of innocent victims has started.  A black-clad assailant with an assault rifle killed two people and wounded seven others at a birthday party celebration in a pub in Tel Aviv this afternoon.  (Israeli police as of yet are not calling it a terrorist attack.)

How to bring an end to the scourge of Islamic terrorism is one of the greatest challenges of our day.  Some, like Fr. Ronald Rolheiser OMI, believe that the solution lies in getting Muslims and Christians to recognize what they share in common.  In the 3 December 2015 issue of the Los Angeles diocesan online paper The Angelus, Fr. Rolheiser calls for “greater solidarity with Islam,” the reason being that “We are both part of the same family….” and for this reason “Muslims more than ever need our understanding, sympathy, support, and fellowship in faith [emphasis mine].”  In his article, Fr. Rolheiser expands on sentiments voiced by Pope Francis on his recent visit to the Central African Republic, where the pope referred to Christians and Muslims as “brothers and sisters.”  The basis for that kinship, Fr. Rolheiser and the pope would say, is their common belief in one Supreme Being and their shared Abrahamic ancestry.  Jews, thus, are their brothers and sisters as well.

The idea of shared common ground between the three monotheistic faiths has been taken to a whole new level by a Lutheran parish priest in Berlin.  In 2009, archaeological excavations on Berlin’s Museum Island unearthed the remains of the city’s earliest church, the Petrikirche (St. Peter’s Church), as well as a Latin school for educating priests, both dating from the 13th century.  Upon learning of this discovery, Lutheran pastor Gregor Hohberg came up with a novel idea:  Why not use this prominent site to build a house of worship in multicultural Berlin where adherents of all three monotheistic faiths could worship together as neighbours?  And thus was born the idea for ‘The House of One’, as it is to be called.  Pastor Hohberg has brought Rabbi Tovia ben Chorin and Imam Kadir Sanci on board.  Together, the three clerics have come to be known as the ‘Tolerance Trio’.

Work on this highly unusual house of worship is slated to begin this year.  Designed by German architect Wilfried Kuehn, the structure will house under the one roof a synagogue, a church, and a mosque, each of equal size but of different shape.  The House of One will have a common room at its centre where adherents of the three religions can meet for dialogue and social events.  Adherents must follow two ‘house rules’:  one, there must be no violence; and two, no proselytizing is allowed.  The project, which is expected to cost some 43.5 million euros, is being funded through crowdsourcing; a donation of 10 euros will purchase one brick.  You don’t have to be a member of one of the three religions in order to donate, either.  The House of One is expected to open in 2018.

Although Berlin’s House of One will be the first worship centre of its kind (if indeed it does get built), a somewhat similar project is underway in the very heart of the USA.  In what is known as the ‘Tri-Faith Initiative’, Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Omaha, Nebraska intend to build houses of worship on a common campus:  a 38-acre plot of land just outside Omaha.  A synagogue, a church and a mosque will be erected on three corners of the lot.  A building that provides social, educational, and conference facilities to be used by all three faiths will occupy the fourth corner.  Participating in the project are Temple Israel, Countryside Community United Church of Christ, and the American Muslim Institute.  A fourth partner is the Tri-Faith Initiative of Omaha, a local organization whose purpose it is to “foster mutual understanding, respect, and friendship between the Abrahamic faiths.”

Rev. Elnes, the Christian partner in the project, calls the proposed campus an attempt to “wage peace between the Abrahamic faiths in the modern era by engaging not simply in interfaith dialogue–which is important–but by learning to live with each other despite our differences as people who worship and adore the same God.”  (I’m not so sure about that).  Like the prospective occupants of The House of One, Tri-Faith Initiative members hope to start building this year.

Will the creation of houses of worship on common ground bring peace between the Abrahamic faiths?  It’s true, Jews, Christians, and Muslims do share common ground, but the differences between them are profound.  The so-designated ‘Abrahamic faiths’, for starters, don’t even agree on the identity of Abraham.  Muslims look on Abraham as the first Muslim, a view both Jews and Christians reject.

From a Christian perspective, what is more likely to happen, I believe,  is a ‘watering down’ of core doctrines and beliefs for the sake of unity and out of a desire not to offend.  Indeed, we have recent evidence of this very thing from no less than the pope himself.  From the very beginning of his papacy Pope Francis has sought to bring Jews, Christians, and particularly Muslims together.  There are many examples of the pope’s reaching out to Jews and Muslims:  the prayer meeting in the Vatican garden where Jews and Muslims for the first time were invited to pray alongside Catholics is a prime example.  In another instance of reaching out:  on December 10, the papacy issued a document stating that the “Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.”  What the document says, in essence, is that the Catholic church will no longer try to convert Jews.   Does this mean that Jews no longer have to believe that Jesus the Christ is their long-awaited mashiach or messiah  (‘Christ” is Greek for the Hebrew ‘messiah’)?  I am speechless, other than to say, expect more concessions on this scale, all in the name of achieving common ground.

 

 

Christmas and the Spirit of Inclusiveness

One of the things I love about this time of year is the music.  There is such a wealth of wonderful Christmas carols, some old, some contemporary:  how to pick a favourite?  The carol O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is one that never fails to move me.  Its haunting melody captures, I believe, the sense of longing felt by the Jewish people down through the centuries as they looked for their promised messiah.  Christians believe that promise was fulfilled with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.  In the words of another carol, “The hopes and dreams of all the years are met in thee [Jesus] tonight,” ( O Little Town of Bethlehem).

I still vividly recall the words to a carol I sang as a child with my school choir at the Christmas choir festival held annually in one of the big churches in my home town:

Winds through the olive trees softly did blow

round little Bethlehem long, long ago.

Sheep on the hillsides lay white as the snow;

Christ came to Bethlehem, long, long ago.

In a sign of how much things have changed in the multicultural West:   At their annual ‘December’ concert this year, 285 schoolchildren from the French public schools in Canada’s capital Ottawa and the surrounding area sang a piece arranged especially for them:  Tala’ al-Badru ‘Alayna, which translates into English as ‘The Full Moon Rose over Us’, a number based on a traditional Arabic song purportedly sung to Islam’s Prophet Muhammad upon his arrival in Medina after leaving Mecca.  Robert Filion, the choir’s director, said that he had wanted to do a Muslim-inspired piece for some time, but that he had had difficulty finding anything.  (I can just imagine, given Islam’s ambivalence towards the performance of  music.)

Coming upon this ancient Islamic piece known as Tala’ al-Badru ‘Alayna,  Filion commissioned Laura Hawley to compose a new arrangement.  To make certain that what they were undertaking wouldn’t cause offense, Filion and Hawley consulted with the local imams, who obviously gave their project a ‘thumbs up’.  And so, in the name of inclusiveness, school children performed a Muslim-inspired song at their December concert.  The song has been very well-received–getting more than 600,000 views on YouTube–and is slated to be performed for a second time at an upcoming Christmas concert in one of Ottawa’s churches.  Many who heard the piece took it to be a song of welcome to the Syrian refugees arriving in Canada.

A Muslim-inspired song at a multicultural school concert is one thing, but at a church Christmas concert?  Recognizing Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, even in song, presents a dilemma to those churchgoers who will be present at the concert.  The Jesus of the Qur’an is not the same as the Jesus of the Gospels.  Muslims revere Jesus, too, but only as a prophet, one prophet in a line of 28 prophets, a prophet who was superseded by their Prophet Muhammad.

The Jesus we Christians celebrate, on the other hand,  is called Emmanuel, a Hebrew word which translates as ‘God is with us’.  The writers of the Gospels tell us that Jesus was not merely a prophet, but God in human form.  In Jesus the Christ, God personally launched a rescue mission to save His fallen creation.  This is the Jesus we sing about at Christmas time.   God taking on human flesh:  That’s amazing.  Maybe that’s why there’s so much amazing Christmas music!