If there’s a clear sky on Thursday, March 23, just after sunset, our Muslim friends worldwide will be looking for the sliver of the moon that begins Ramadan. When it’s sighted in Mecca, the lunar month of daytime fasting will begin. Your Muslim neighbors, schoolmates, relatives, and colleagues will probably joke about gaining weight, because although fasting all day is a difficult sacrifice, feasting before sunrise and after sunset is a bit like Thanksgiving or Sunday family dinners for 28 days! Chances are there are special dishes that appear only during this month, and family traditions, too. Lynnell and I in past years have gladly accepted invitations to these dinners, called Iftars in Arabic, and I hope to be able to tell you when you could also join in. An iftar begins with the regular maghrib (sunset) daily prayer, and the traditional fast-breaking food is dates. It would be literally correct to call this meal “breakfast,” because that’s what it is, breaking the fast, but we’re used to that word meaning “morning meal.” Guests, particularly those who are poor or unable to reciprocate, are especially encouraged, and Jesus’ teaching “if you only give to those who you expect will give to you, what credit is that to you?” is well-known in Islam. Jesus is regarded as the Messiah, though not divine, and he is perhaps the most revered and holy of all the muslim prophets. Muhammad, who came later, is not seen as anything like the Word Made Flesh, but instead as the bearer of the definitive Word of God, the Qur’an. He wasn’t even the author of the holy book, just the conduit. Ramadan was the month when Muhammad first began receiving the Word, spoken to him by the angel Jibril, whom we know as Gabriel.
Just two weeks of sunsets later, our Jewish cousins all over the world will celebrate Passover. Instead of a new crescent, Passover begins with a full moon. You can imagine that was helpful to the slaves escaping Egypt, fleeing east and fearing their former masters would change their mind about letting them finally go. Instead of 28 days, Passover is just one week long, and the only dietary change is the elimination of anything with leavening in it. Hence, the matzah. Families with guests gather for a liturgical meal on the first two nights, and the liturgy can be formal or free-form, very long or just somewhat long (smile). In addition to the unleavened bread, symbolic foods also appear on the dinner plate reminding the participants of the sufferings of their ancestors during slavery, of the manual labor, and of God’s act of liberation described in Exodus. The holiday commemorates that liberation and connects Jewish suffering with contemporary oppression all over the world. People are urged to take no satisfaction in the suffering of innocent Egyptians–not even Pharaoh–lest their hearts become hard and cold by doing so. The Exodus is not God’s vengeance upon the evil empire, but is better regarded as God’s saving justice, say the rabbis. If you are invited to a Passover dinner, known by the Hebrew name seder, which just means “order,” or “liturgy,” I hope you can accept. For your Jewish colleagues, neighbors, and family members, it’s a huge family thing, often involving travel and discussions about tender and even controversial matters.
Unlike Muslims and Jews, most Christians (traditional Catholics and Orthodox excepted) don’t really fast or abstain in our springtime festival of Lent and Holy Week. Our Maundy Thursday meal is an echo of a Passover Seder, but no more than that. And our tradition of having a Lenten discipline is also just an echo of the self-discipline involved in strict fasting for the Muslim holy month.
Often ignored or even persecuted, Jews and Muslims are our spiritual cousins. So I hope you will get a chance to come to an iftar and a seder, and that breaking bread, whether in pita, naan, or matzah form, will be a blessing to you and will deepen your friendships with our Abrahamic cousins!