Sharing Sacred Abrahamic Seasons: God's October Surprise


At just the moment of history when religious conflict, violence, terrorism, and war have reemerged bearing lethal dangers for our different communities and our shared planet, God has given our spiritual and religious traditions a gift of time:

During October 2005 — and then again in the fall of 2006 and 2007 — a confluence of sacred moments in several different traditions invites us to pray with or alongside each other and to work together for peace, justice, human rights, and the healing of our wounded earth.

The sacred Muslim lunar month of Ramadan and the sacred Jewish lunar month of Tishrei, which includes the High Holy Days and Sukkot, both begin in early October. After 2007, that will not happen for thirty years.

And there is more: October 2 is Worldwide (Protestant/ Orthodox) Communion Sunday, and is also Gandhi's birthday.

October 4 is the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi. Remembering Francis of Assisi is more to the point today than many may realize. For at the very moment when almost all of Christian Europe was calling for Crusades, Francis was one of the few Christians of his day who opposed the Crusades, who learned in a serious way from Muslim teachers, and who was deeply dedicated to kinship with the earth and all living creatures.

There is much that we could do to heal the world during this sacred season made up of sacred times. There are some practices we could embody quickly, for this October, and some that we could undertake as we look toward 2006 and 2007.

First of all, the National Council of Churches; the Islamic Society of North America; Pax Christi; ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal and its rabbinical affiliate Ohalah; and the Jewish Committee for Isaiah's Vision (more than one hundred rabbis and other Jewish leaders from all religious branches) have joined in calling for all Americans to set aside the time from sunrise to sunset on October 13 — which for Muslims is one of the Ramadan fast days and for Jews is the fast day of Yom Kippur — as a nationwide fast for Reflection, Repentance, Reconciliation and Renewal.

They have also urged that this Fast be dedicated to support public multireligious action at some other time during the month to "Seek Peace, Feed the Poor, Heal the Earth."

In this way, all three traditions could learn from the passage of Isaiah — whom all three join in revering as a Prophet —that in Jewish tradition is read on Yom Kippur morning. God, speaking through Isaiah, says, "Do you think the fast that I demand this day is to bow down your head like a bulrush? No! The fast I demand is that you feed the poor, house the homeless, clothe the naked, and break off the handcuffs on your prisoners."

Since part of this effort is an attempt to remind us all and the American public that the different Abrahamic traditions share some teachings and wisdom that emerge from their different forms of thought and practice, such efforts should be called to the attention of the media.

And there can be some specific actions that range from relatively easy to more difficult:

    * Perhaps in groups of congregations — a church, a synagogue, a mosque, a temple — each congregation could host one meal for members of the others, after nightfall on any of the evenings of Ramadan, and share a reflective conversation and learning during the meal: What does fasting mean in each tradition? How can we teach beyond what might seem the violent passages in each of the sacred wisdoms?

    * Churches could invite Jews, Muslims, and others to join in learning about and celebrating the teachings of Francis of Assisi.

    * Jews, Muslims, Christians, and others could join in prayer and celebration, with music and poetry, in a congregational or public Sukkah — the leafy hut, open to the wind and rain, that Jews traditionally build for the harvest festival of Sukkot. Perhaps Sunday afternoon of October 23, both a day of Ramadan and a day of Sukkot, would be the most appropriate time.

    *In Philadelphia, we will build a Sukkah in Independence Park on Sunday, October 23. From 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m., we will have action-oriented workshops in a nearby church on how our different traditions address issues of global scorching, responding to Katrina, the connections betwen Philadelphia and Iraq, gun violence in our cities and schools, empowering the poor, protecting human rights, healing the earth.

Then we will move to the sukkah for songs, music, chants, prayers, and poetry of the three traditions. After sunset, we will break the Ramadan fast and eat together.

Ancient Jewish wisdom taught that "sacred guests" are invited into the sukkah, and the ancient Rabbis taught that during Sukkot, blessings are invoked upon "the seventy nations" of the world. Traditional prayers implore God to "spread the sukkah of shalom" over us. These are perfec rubrics for peacemaking among the children of Abraham and all humanity with each other and with all the earth.

    * Muslims could invite other communities to join in celebrating some aspects of Eid el-Fitr (the feast at the end of Ramadan), and Jews and Christians could (as in Morocco) bring food to the celebration of the end of Ramadan's fasting. Eid el-Fitr marks and underlines the month-long commitment to fast so as to offer food and life-abundance to God as a sacrifice, and to focus on devotion to God instead of to material success.

    * Synagogues could invite Muslim scholars and spiritual leaders to teach on Rosh Hashanah — when Jews are reading Torah passages from the saga of Abraham, Hagar, Ishmael, Sarah, and Isaac — how it is that Muslims understand that family story. Then there could be open discussion of the differences, the similarities, the wisdom held in each of the versions of the story.

    *Synagogues could set aside a time during Yom Kippur or the Shabbat just before, or another special time during the month, to read and discuss the Torah's story (Gen. 25: 7-11) of the joining of Isaac and Ishmael to bury their father Abraham, and then to achieve reconciliation at the Well of the Living One Who Sees Me. They could invite Muslims to join in some part of that day or in the break-fast (by Muslims called Iftar) at the end of the day.

    * In various contexts during the month, congregations could bring together teachers or clergy from the three traditions to explain how each looks at —

    * protection of the human rights that are implied by the affirmation of all three traditions that every human being is made in the Image of God;

    * ways to heal the earth — God's creation — from the disastrous climate crisis of the global scorching caused by human arrogance and idolatry;

    * the question of whether and how public resources should be used to feed the hungry and empower the poor, rather than to swell the treasuries of the mighty.

    * Issues of terrorism, war, and violence, whether internationally or as it explodes in gun violence in our cities and our schools.

As we look beyond 2005 more deeply toward the next few years, we could draw on the process used by fifteen Jews, Muslims, and Christians who have come to call themselves "The Tent of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah." Meeting three times (so far) in a retreat setting for four days each time, the Tent went beyond intellectual "interfaith dialogue" to the spaces of heart and soul.

Participants began by sharing with each other some important aspects of their Own individual spiritual journeys. They worked out ways of sharing prayer that respected the boundaries of certain prayers within each of the three communities, while creating authentic prayer forms open to all the participants though clearly rooted in each one of the traditions. And then they explored what shared action they might take in the world.

Since the confluence of sacred dates will continue in the fall of 2006 and 2007, we have three years to seal the connections that flow from this miracle of time. It is as if God is saying to us: "In the midst of your pain and trouble with each other, here is My gift to make connections possible. Now it is up to you to enrich this gift, or waste it."

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