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No labels needed to reflect on Christmas

December 24th · 1 Comment · Christian, Florida Weekly, Imam W. Deen Mohammed, Jesus, Muslim, Prophet Muhammad, Quran

Imam W.D. Mohammed undoubtedly said it best:

“With reference to a saying of the Holy Prophet, your Imam calls attention to the fact that Muslims are to contribute to the wholesomeness of Christian religious holiday festivals. An indication of the Muslim role in promoting respect for wholesome and sacred celebrations is found in the teaching of Prophet Muhammed, which prohibits arbitrary fasting during the holidays of people of the Book. The purpose serves to preserve and to promote solemn respect for G-d and for the sacred devotion of all people.”

My thoughts in that spirit, in my latest Florida Weekly commentary:

We need no labels to reflect on traditions, values at Christmas

The column’s here. See the entire digital edition here. Or keep reading:

Amid all the joys of Christmas, most folks find time for reflection, if only for a moment, seeking meaning in the holiday season. So, dare I wade into the social and political swamp of (yikes!) “meaning” in this winter holiday season?

You betcha. Because despite rampant commercialism, Christmas is a spiritual commemoration of the miracle birth of Christ Jesus, peace be upon him, and of that great teacher’s way of bringing the light into the world.

Of course, a lot of folks these days are scared of spiritual. That’s largely due to the tumult throughout history and throughout the world in the name of spiritual.

Yet the horrors that have been done in Jesus’ name — and those of many other great lights throughout the ages — hardly are representative of them. It’s worth noting that the Bible-totin’, cross-burning Ku Klux Klan and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. both claimed guidance from the same holy book.

One result today is that people increasingly aren’t inclined to consider themselves aligned with any particular religious label. More and more, it seems, people are spiritual independents, so to speak. Not affiliated with any particular… er, party.

And that’s fine. It’s way past time for quibbling over how good people conceptualize their spirituality.

In fact, we’d all be better off if the world could grasp the simple concept that there should be no compulsion in matters of religion.

I’m finding that more and more people, some more actively than others, are trying to learn what other folks are spiritually about — or not — and honor that.

Given the occasion, I keep thinking back to what I wrote a few years ago in a column titled, “This Muslim Honors Christmas.”

“I hardly claim to speak for all Muslims, who are as diverse as humanity. But count me among those for whom this day highlights the spirit of love and humility that Jesus taught and lived, and of whom God says in the Quran (57:27): ‘We gave Jesus the Gospel and put compassion and mercy into the hearts of his followers.’ ”

I mentioned that for decades it has been my practice to bestow ribbon-bedecked bottles of Martinelli apple cider upon friends, a token of both the season’s joy and sober reflection.

I cited, though not by name, my dear now departed friend Stebbins Jefferson’s query: “I thought you didn’t celebrate Christmas.”

I don’t, was my reply, but I honor it because she — and so many others whom God has made the repositories of so much grace and good in America and the world — do.

A lot has changed since then, of course — and little has.

Roberta Popara, associate director of Our Lady of Florida Spiritual Center in North Palm Beach, said that being in Iraq for Christmas in 2003 “gave me an opportunity to see how a Christian minority and another culture celebrate one of the most important feast days second only to Easter.”

Most countries don’t observe the cultural Christmas that Americans do, said the Dominican Sister. “Rather the religious significance takes precedent. Even so, in homes and shops there are modest displays for this holiday. Even some Muslim shopkeepers display Christmas lights and images of Baba Noel, as Arabic speakers call our Santa Claus. Special foods such as kibbi and pasha become usual fare for the holidays. There is some gift giving but again, very simple. The Christian community gathers for plays and pageants as well as prayerful observance of the holy season.”

“Even so,” she said, “since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the rise of counter insurgency, holy seasons such as Christmas bring their own fear upon this minority community as certain groups, claiming they are doing God’s will, bring terror and death by targeting Christian churches and gatherings.

“This needs to be understood in balance with the continued experiences of terror for the ordinary Iraqi citizen regardless of religious identity.”

Methinks Muslims and others should be more aware of an episode in the early history of the Muslim community.

Severely persecuted in Mecca, some left to Ethiopia, whose Christian Negus sheltered them. The Meccans pursued, seeking their forced return. The Muslims appealed to the king that they once had been steeped in ignorance, worshiping idols and committing abominations, but had turned to worship only the creator. They recited the opening verses of the Quran’s chapter 19, named for Jesus’ mother Mary, at which the ruler wept.

The Meccans then claimed that Muslims disrespect Jesus, to which the reply came that the prophet taught that Jesus was a creature of God and his prophet, as well as his spirit and his word, which was cast unto the Blessed Virgin Mary. Upon which the king said he would never give up the Muslims to their persecutors.

There’s been way too much suffering among religious folk since. Witness “An Advent Evening of Commemoration and Reflection” for the four U.S. churchwomen martyred in El Salvador on Dec. 2, 1980.

The Dec. 14 advent program, hosted by Pax Christi Palm Beach at St. Ann Church in West Palm Beach, remembered Sisters Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel and lay missioner Jean Donovan.

They had accepted dire risk in choosing to remain and serve as a shield for El Salvador’s persecuted poor. What else would his sincere followers do, than what Jesus would do?

Hearing their stories, my sense is the sisters would have appreciated a moment of levity from several Sundays ago, courtesy of the Rev. Carol Yorke of the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Palm Beaches.

“So, you do know what would have happened if it had been three wise women instead of men, don’t you? They would have asked for directions. Arrived on time. Helped deliver the baby. Cleaned the stable. Made a casserole. And brought disposable diapers as gifts.

Rev. Yorke went on to remind that, “Horror and tragedy do not mean the end of meaning, unless we choose to view it that way.”

Instead, she said, “We can choose gratitude.”

There’s room to remember that meaning of this day and season.

Christmas, as someone once said, is what you make of a reflection of your values, desires, affections and traditions.

With spiritual label or not.

— C.B. Hanif

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