In a world filled with violence and intolerance – this blog describes a rare moment where sanity and respect ruled.
…..and the Lion shall lie down with the Lamb….
This metaphor describes our improbable experience of the celebration of the Muslim festival of Eid-al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice) this September while on a working visit to the Middle East. Isaiah never actually wrote those words (check the text – Isaiah 11.6) but we sometimes remember only what we hope for.
When is the last time your church or synagogue experienced a service shared by your priest or rabbi and a Muslim cleric? More unusual, this service took place amid the turmoil of the Middle East and was focused on the Muslim celebration of Eid and not simply a polite exchange of greetings.
We attended the service at the Peace Cathedral, a congregation of the Evangelical Baptist Church in Tbilisi Georgia. Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, an Oxford Ph.D, chooses to live and practice his profession in what he refers to as ‘context’. He has a terrific long white beard and dresses in the traditional robes and colors of the locally predominant Orthodox Church. The Cathedral is filled with icons and other symbols familiar to the orthodox tradition – but to cover all bases includes a Jewish Menorah.
The Cathedral is actually a low structure that from the exterior looks more like a shed than a sanctuary. During Soviet times on the few occasions where a Protestant church received permission to build they were required to maintain a low physical profile. Soviet authorities apparently thought this would make the church less attractive to potential adherents. Between my visits in May and September the church structure had undergone a rather unusual renovation. The entire floor had been lowered 1.5 meters so that the internal dimension now approximated what we might consider appropriate for a church.
The first surprise was the entry of two boys carrying a live sheep. Since this event celebrates the biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac (or Ishmael in the Koranic version), the sacrifice of an animal by each family is an integral part of the festival. Leona panicked for a moment suspecting that an execution might take place during the service – but this sheep lived to see another day.
The morning reflected the traditional Baptist order of service with music and sermon – with the latter eloquently delivered by a woman. The service then shifted to what passed for an unusual variation to the idea of the Christian sacrament of Communion. Bishop Songulashvili was joined by Mufti Aivaz Madinov, Deputy Representative of the All Caucasian Council of Muslims. There was a visual reversal of roles given that the Christian cleric wore long robes and the Mufti was dressed in a traditional western business suit – minus the tie. The Mufti recited the Christian prayer “Our Father” in Georgian followed by the bishop reciting a parallel classic Muslim prayer in Arabic.
The Muslim fast is traditionally broken by eating dates. In this remarkable service the priest and the cleric took a platter of dates and circulated through the entire congregation offering each person a date – a parallel image to the Christian distribution of the sacraments of bread and wine.
We noted that the female Christian preacher was dressed in a long black robe while the wife of the Muslim cleric joined her husband on stage in a knee-length western dress minus a hijab – the only head-coverings in sight were the elderly Georgian matriarchs in the front pews.
Lunch included the Baptist Bishop and Imam Ali Aliev, the senior representative of both Shia and Sunni in the region – no end of surprises. The Imam was educated in the famous Islamic religious Universities of Qom in Iran. We enjoyed a remarkable and delicious extended Middle Eastern lunch covering every conceivable secular, political and religious subject.
During this week there was chaos on Temple Mount, crowded skies over Syria, ancient monuments were destroyed and I could add Republican candidates competed in debate to plumb the intellectual bottom – but that night our heads were spinning with a spiritual and cultural high.
A small candle of hope keeps burning…..