Wednesday, March 01, 2006


Those who have been reading this blog for years may remember that Shi'ite more than Sunni Islam has long been of interest for my own sense of spirituality. This is perhaps because core elements are similar enough to Christianity to be compared directly, yet different enough to give rise to dialogue with it. I have especially noted this the past few years, when Muharram, the month of Ashura, has fallen near to Lent. One sees two redemptive sacrifices in Husayn's decision to stand at Karbala and Jesus's to wait in the Garden of Gethsemane. One also finds models of patient suffering in those imams who taught and faced persecution without seeking political leadership and the apostles who suffered persecution and ultimately martyrdom in the name of their faith.

Most people today find following their religion quite simple, as by definition they are majorities in their country and don't face persecution. This is certainly true of Christians in the United States, and nowadays of Shi'ites in most places they are found. We don't need to suffer for our faith, and we substitute commemorating our spiritual forbears who did. And this leads to what seems a key difference in attitude between the two faiths. For the Christian, despite the symbolism of "Ash Wednesday," everything still looks forward to the risen Christ and a faith that we personally are redeemed from sin. For Shi'ites, there is a darker tone. Yesterday in class, two students showed video of Ashura commemorations in Bahrain, with parades of mourners remembering Husayn, much like most of the pilgrims I saw at the shrine of Husayn in Damascus had tears in their eyes. Shi'ites through prophecy are assured of final victory, but for the moment there is primarily sorrow and patient suffering.

When we remember, however, that Jesus called his followers to see him in the poor and downtrodden, perhaps we see that there is room to put more of Ashura in Ash Wednesday. For us, ash is a symbol, one which since ancient times has been used for rituals of mourning and repentance and which we use to remind us of our own mortality, together with the words, "Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return." Many in the world, however, need no such reminder. Their lives are filled with suffering, to which the rest of us are functionally indifferent. Families lose loved ones, and we shuffle aside consumed by our own awkwardness. People around the world live in poverty or in the middle of wars, and we are hardly aware of it. Even people who seem to have everything can suffer emotionally and spiritually, consumed with fears over body image and other superficial matters our culture has come to regard as important.

Those for whom the story of the Passion is too remote might do well to remember the suffering of those around us, and to come out of our forty days of reflection with the same spirit as Jesus, one determined to make a difference in the lives of those who need us regardless of the temptations to seek our own power and glory. Can we truly pick up the cross and follow? No, for we live in sin, and only very few can overcome it to that degree. But everything we do in this world still makes a difference and allows us to serve in our own small ways he who gave his life for us. And as for the sin in which we dwell and of which we are called to repent at this time, I will first echo what I said last year:
"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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