Christmas Week and the final preparations for Christmas – cards to be completed and sent, last minute presents and shopping, expectations of family get-togethers – all very jolly and full of festive fun. It’s hard though to enter fully into it all or to speak too enthusiastically about it with the news we have on our televisions and in our newspapers. With a terrorist attack in a major European city, wars in Syria and Yemen, conflict in the Middle East as well as growing poverty in our cities, homelessness, food banks, it’s easy to get depressed about the state of the world. Where’s the hope, where’s the peace that Christians claim to bring? Then there are the families for whom Christmas will be sad because of family illness, bereavement, separation. All of this is true and not to be forgotten but recognised and accepted as part of our world. But it’s not the only part. There’s also goodness and peace initiatives, people working for justice and social cohesion, sacrificing themselves and their time for the good of others and our worlds. Recently I was at an event attended by a number of people involved in international and integral human development and looking round the room I was aware of the good energy there and the desire of all these people to work for peace and justice. A sense of the Kingdom of God was tangible. And this too is part of our world and not to be forgotten at Christmas. Perhaps it’s this that gives us hope and faith to enjoy our own Christmas celebrations.
This week many of the Christmas celebrations, at least in this country, will have no reference to the story of the birth of Jesus. For many the holiday is cultural and seasonal rather than religious though there will be some knowledge I suppose of the Christmas story from carols and nativity scenes in city centres. How accurate these are to the accounts of the birth of Jesus in the Christian Scriptures is doubtful but they do incorporate aspects of the stories in the scriptures as well as other traditions, such as three wise men who turn out to be kings. But there is another story of the birth of Jesus that most of us don’t know and that’s the one in the Qur’an. Many people don’t realise that Jesus is revered as a major prophet within Islam and is even described as Messiah, sent to the Jewish people with a new revelation for them. Like Christians Muslims believe that Mary, Maryam, Jesus’ mother was a virgin who withdrew to a secluded place where the angel Gabriel announced the birth of a son. Mary said
‘I am only a messenger from your Lord, (to announce) to you the gift of a righteous son.’ She said: ‘How can I have a son, when no man hath touched me, nor am I unchaste?’ He said: ‘So (it will be), your Lord said That is easy for Me (God): And (We wish) to appoint him as a sign to mankind and a mercy from Us (God), and it is a matter (already) decreed (by God).’” (Quran 19:16-21).
Mary gives birth to Jesus, at the foot of a palm tree in the desert, not in a stable in Bethlehem as in the Christian scriptures. She is terrified that this illegitimate birth will bring disgrace to her and her family and even wishes for death. However the baby, Jesus, miraculously speaks to her, comforting her and assuring her of God’s concern for her by providing dates from the palm tree and a spring of water to refresh her. He tells her to say nothing about his birth, telling people that she had taken a vow to abstain from talking and when she returned to her people it was Jesus who spoke.
The Qur’an describes this:
They said, ‘O Mary, indeed you have done a great evil.’ ‘O sister of Aaron, your father was not an evil man, and your mother was not a fornicator.’ So she pointed to him. They said, ‘How can we speak to a child in the cradle?’ (Jesus) said, ‘Indeed, I am a slave of God. He has given me the Scripture and made me a prophet. And He has made me blessed wherever I may be, and He has enjoined on me prayer and charity as long as I remain alive. And (has made) me kind to my mother, and did not make me arrogant or miserable. And peace be upon me the day I was born, and the day I will die, and the day I will be raised alive.’” (Quran 19:22-33).
What do we do with these contradictory stories? At one time we might have tried to prove one correct and the other wrong. Some Muslims would see the Christian accounts as a distortion of the true revelation; some Christians would see the Quranic account as reflecting some Christian traditions that have not made their way into the canonical scriptures or the silence of Mary reflecting the silence of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. Now we can live more happily with these contradictions – at least those involved in interreligious dialogue can, I hope. What these stories (and similar miraculous birth stories in other faiths) do for me is remind me of the nature of religious scriptures. They point to something greater than themselves and use the language of exaltation, stressing more the significance of Jesus than the actual details of his birth. The details don’t matter. What’s important is the meaning that the stories convey. Both the Christian account and the Qur’anic account tell us that Jesus is no ordinary child, a person who can and does make a difference to our world. He is one who shows us that the way of peace is possible, that we too can live as He did in service of others, someone who gives us hope and faith that the evils that confront us in the media need not have the final say. This is the real story of Christmas - and one shared by both Christians and Muslims.