December 15, 2013.

Dear Friends,

We will gather together for our Badaliya and Islands of Peace Institute Faith Sharing on Sunday, December 15, 2013 from 3:00 pm to 4:30 pm at St. Pauls Church in Cambridge, in the small chapel located in the Parish Center. Please join us in person or in spirit as we encourage Interfaith relations and pray together for peace and reconciliation in the Middle East and especially in the Holy Land.

For Christians the liturgical year is defined by the events in the life of Christ beginning with the celebration of the birth of Jesus that we call the Nativity. We begin this new Church year with the Advent season of four weeks before Christmas with a time of prayer and reflection, of quiet waiting in expectation. This invitation to wait is not only difficult for us as a high speed culture of instant messaging but it also challenges our basic impatient human nature. In this season we are preparing our hearts to receive the "Incarnation," Jesus, the hope for new life, and the promise that we may each give birth to God within us and in our world. This notion of "God with us, Emmanuel," and the indwelling spirit of God within each of us recalls Louis Massignon's research on the life and spiritual writings of the 10th century SUFI mystic of Islam known as al-Hallaj. He was known as a love mystic who referred to the center of the human heart where the inviolable spirit of God dwells. He called this the "virgin point" and Massignon connected this image to the Virgin Mary. (See ch.7 "The Eternal Feminine: Mary and the Virgin Heart" in Dialogues with Saints and Mystics: In the Spirit of Louis Massignon. KNP.2002.)

In Advent we are called to reflect on the many stories found in the Gospels about the visit to Mary by an angel of God, called the "Annunciation", and her "Visitation" to her elderly cousin Elizabeth who the angel tells us is in her sixth month of pregnancy. Elizabeth will be the mother of John the Baptist. There are stories of angels calling shepherds in the fields, "Kings" from the East who are guided by a heavenly star, and many others. We hear these stories every year and yet as we take the time to enter into their mysterious depth of meaning in our lives, they take on a rich texture of purpose and direction. They call us to return with patience, humility and love back to God with open minds and hearts.

Louis Massignon believed that the Virgin Mary holds the key to reconciliation between all three Abrahamic faith traditions. She is a "daughter of Abraham" a young Jewish woman whose "Yes" to God gave birth to Jesus, to Christianity and to the second most revered Prophet in Islam. It is her intense faith in the One God of Abraham that allows her to accept the invitation made to her by an angel, that Christian tradition identifies as the Archangel Gabriel. The majority of interpreters of the Qur'an also name the Archangel Gabriel as the spirit that appears to Mary, named Maryam in Islamic tradition. Christians will recognize many figures mentioned in the Gospels that also appear in the Qur'an and as many miraculous events. Islam's reverence for Mary is almost as strong as Catholic and Orthodox Christians.

Surah 19 in the Qur'an begins with the prayer of the Prophet Zechariah for a successor to his role as preacher of God's message and guardian of the child Mary. His prayer for a successor was answered in the miraculous birth of his son, John, by Zechariah's wife who was known to be barren. In the Qur'an there are many facets of Mary's life that are not found in the Gospels. One of them is that her mother dedicated her to a life of prayer in the Temple, placing her under the guadianship of the prophet Zechariah. In the Qur'an Mary is mentioned as one of two exemplary women who lived before the Prophet Muhammad, and the Prophet mentions her as one of the four greatest of all women. The other three were Aysa, the wife of the Pharoah, his own wife, Khadija, and his own daughter, Fatima.

"Massignon prayed to Christ for help in understanding Islam and in convincing Christians to approach their Muslim brothers [and sisters] with a more evangelical spirit. Among the chief co-sufferers and participants in the passion of Christ, Massignon placed the Virgin Mary, 'the perfect daughter of Abraham, the mother of an innocent son who was condemned to death, the Queen of the Seven Sorrows'."(Bassetti-Sani Louis Massignon: Christian Ecumenist 1974 Franciscan Herald Press. p.60)

He found in Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, and revered in the Shi'a community in Islam, an image of another "Queen of Sorrows". Fatima was known as the "mother of Imams." As the Prophet's only surviving child she was the wife of the fourth Sunni Muslim Imam, Ali, who was considered by the Shi'a community as the first legitimate Imam since he was the cousin of Muhammad and therefore a member of the family. Fatima was the mother of Hasan and Husayn, whose martyrdom at Karbala in 680 CE is the defining event in the history of Shiism that we referred to in last month's letter. It is marked annually during the tenth day of the month of Muharram, known as Ashura, a day of mourning. "Like the Virgin Mary in Christian tradition, Fatima is portrayed as a woman of sorrow, symbolizing the rejection, disinheritance and martyrdom of her husband and sons....Fatima is the primal mother figure, immaculate and sinless, the pattern for virtuous women, the object of prayer and petition." (Esposito, John L.Islam the Straight Path 1991. Oxford University Press. p. 112)

These images of Fatima remind us of our Christian images of Mary and caused Massignon to write about them. In his efforts to heal the divisions between Muslims and Christians and solve the dilemma for his Jewish friends of the Jewish heritage of both Mary and her son, he turned to these two exemplary women as images of nonviolence and love.

It is the birth of Love into our world of pain and suffering that we Christians want to share with our Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters during this Advent season of anticipation, along with the joy of celebrating new life during the remainder of the Christmas Season.

May Peace be with you during this Holy Season and always.

(See for all past Badaliya letters)