Thursday, February 10, 2005

Seasons of Penitence

Tomorrow will be the first day of Muharram in the Islamic calendar, the beginning of the year 1426 A.H. For Shi'ites especially, it will be a time of mourning and penitence, as Muharram 10 is Ashura, the day on which the Imam Husayn was martyred at Karbala. You can find some of what lies behind this commemoration here and here, as well as perhaps through my own humble attempt at book-learning here.

The importance of a time for penitence strikes me as especially interesting coming out of Islam, where you have this idea of the fitra, essentially an internal compass that drives us to do what is right. This is the complete opposite of Christianity's idea of "original sin," which in the Protestant tradition especially becomes the idea that humanity is inherently evil, able to be "saved" only through divine grace. Interestingly, one might find something similar in the Gospel of St. Thomas, which says: "If your leaders say to you, 'Look, the Kingdom (of God) is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. Rather the Kingdom is inside you and outside you. When you know yourselves, you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father."

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, it is remembered that the Greek word used for "sin" in the New Testament recalls the idea of an archer missing his target, and perhaps this shows how the Islamic and Christian conceptions really aren't all that different, for an archer who misses the target at least knows what to shoot for, and whether he or she is helped by Jesus Christ or the words of the Qur'an and example of the Imams makes little difference.

Astute observers of my sidebar may have noticed that I've begun associating with the Moravian Church, a denomination which tends to ignore such esoteric matters and focus on the path itself - in this case the life of Jesus - rather than the intellectual contructs which seek to explain it. This strikes me as wise, for as St. Paul wrote, "For now we see but through a glass darkly." The Orthodox believe human intellect can only understand God in terms of what he is not, and if you don't understand God, you might as well let everything else lie as a mere approximation of what, exactly, we're doing with our various rituals.

But to return to the original subject, I don't want to sign off without mentioning Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. What is most interesting to me about Yom Kippur is that on the eve of this day, which like Ashura is the tenth of the year, people seek forgiveness of their neighbors for the injuries and offense given during the previous year. You cannot seek forgiveness from God until you have sought it from man. And Yom Kippur thus becomes a time of renewal, for it is our human failings that drag us down into habitual conflict and broken relationships, what a Christian might see as an accretion of sin that needs to be washed away so that something new and wholesome might begin.

And I like this idea so much that, with apologies to my Jewish readers, I have decided to steal it. Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian penitential season of Lent, which does not begin the year, but is named from an old Saxon word for spring, the season in which life is reborn after a harsh winter. And on this Ash Wednesday let me say, "To those whom I have wronged, let me now seek forgiveness for those wrongs. To those by whom I have felt wronged, I humbly forgive you, knowing that good and evil, when applied to humans, are but points on a scale on which we all slide to one degree or another. And in this way, let us join together in a new season of peace and fellowship with all people everywhere, whom the ancient Middle Eastern peoples with their genealogies rightly saw were, despite their differences, one family and one community."


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