One was with a Shia Muslim group who wanted to show their support for Christians celebrating at a difficult time and with reduced family gatherings. At Eid we had had a shared prayer to give support to Muslims who were unable to meet with their extended families. Our Muslim friends wanted to reciprocate by supporting us and assuring us of their prayers.
We heard about the significance of Jesus in the Qur’an and how much he is loved and respected by Muslims who see him as one of the greatest prophets and messenger to humanity. The prophet Mohammed felt a special closeness to him and the tradition records him as saying, "Both in this world and in the hereafter, I am the nearest of all the people to Jesus, the son of Mary”. Within the Christian tradition we are used to having different stories about Jesus, especially stories around his birth. The gospels of Mark and Luke tell different stories about the birth of Jesus though popular tradition has merged these into one so that many Christians don’t recognise the diversity in the gospels. This should make us open to the different account in the Qur’an, realising that it is the significance and truth Jesus does not belong solely to Christians though the realisation that Jesus is greater than any religious system and cannot be contained within it can deepen our understanding of the impact of Jesus in the world.
The other moment was an Advent/Hanukkah celebration with a reflection on Advent and the story behind Hanukkah. Hanukkah is a festival recognising the importance of religious freedom when the Maccabees cleansed and rededicated the Temple that had been desecrated by the Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanes. The miracle remembered at this festival is that purified oil, enough for one day, lasted for eight until it could be replenished. A candle is lit on each day of the festival so, as it was the fifth day of the festival, we lit five candles and heard a Hanukkah blessing and song.
The advent reflection showed us once again how similar the Christian and Jewish traditions are. It came as a surprise to some that the first Sunday of Advent is the beginning of the Christian year, not 1st January. Some were surprised that there is such a thing as a liturgical year. And like at the festival of Simchat Torah the Christian church begins a new series of gospel readings. This year it’s the gospel of Mark and it will be read on most Sundays throughout the year apart from special feasts and seasons such as lent. The gradual lighting of the hanukkah candelabra or hanukkiah is a little like the four candles on the advent wreath that are lit each Sunday during church services or during personal prayer if there is a wreath at home.
The word Advent means ‘coming to’ and traditionally Christians think in terms of three comings of Jesus who for them is an image of the invisible God and the One who brings God near and reveals God’s presence amongst us. The season begins by remembering that at the end of time we believe that Jesus will return to bring about the establishment of God’s kingdom. We also remember the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem in present day Palestine. Like the Jewish tradition this is not remembering a past event but rather a recognition that through his Spirit and in his community Jesus still walks amongst us and that God comes to us in the events of our everyday lives.
Christians use each of the Sundays in Advent to focus on a theme or character from the infancy narratives as a focus for prayer and reflection. The readings from our Sunday worship, which during advent includes the prophets, particularly the prophet Isaiah, gives us something to reflect on as well as a disposition to live by.
This year we have been aware of the effects of Covid 19. For example we’ve heard in Church the message to ‘stay awake for we know not the day not the hour when God will come and call us’. There will be few of us this year who don’t know someone who has unexpectedly been called to eternal life either because of or with the virus and we know that this is a call that we will all face some day. Are we ready? But there is also a call that comes to us in our everyday lives. Covid 19 has been such a call – it came unexpectedly but has given us the opportunity to reflect on and perhaps even change our priorities.
For Christians the journey through Advent in a spirit of prayer and reflection affects all the practical preparations for Christmas, hopefully transforming them into acts of love. And this year an act of love will be to have reduced family celebrations - as all other faiths have been doing throughout this unusual year. But I for one will be remembering the support of our brothers and sisters from both the Jewish and Muslim faiths. That’s something to be grateful for.