Sunday, April 11, 2004

Holy days can bring us together


Easter and Passover have come in a different way this year, as Holy Week for Christians and the festival of freedom for Jews coincides with Islamic clerics calling for holy war in Iraq.

A darkening international scene brings a new poignancy to holidays that emphasize light triumphing over darkness, and freedom over enslavement. The biblical theme of laying down one's life for one's friends is terribly real as dozens more American soldiers died last week in Iraq.

For the past year, issues of faith have interlaced with world and national events with a frequency and intensity we have rarely seen. Front-page stories were set in temples and mosques. Jesus Christ was the subject of a three-hour ABC special and made the cover of Time magazine.

Religious issues have torn people apart with a fierce new brutality. They have drawn them together in fresh and surprising ways.

Episcopalians and Methodists have grappled with the propriety of homosexual clergy. Catholics have struggled with the cascading story of sexual abuse by priests and the church's halting response to it. American Jews, Muslims and Christians have striven to live together as friends and countrymen even as their religious differences have grown sharper in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, The Passion of The Christ has drawn more than 30 million people to theaters to hungrily - or skeptically - re-examine one of the world's most familiar stories.

The U.S. Constitution may separate church, temple, mosque and state, but real life splashes them together in messy and vital ways.

Out of the mix can come repression and division. Out of it can come conciliation and enlightenment. It is ours to decide.

The hardest of times and most divisive of issues can, strangely enough, help us most as we struggle to find a way to believe differently but live civilly together.

Even as we are repulsed by suicide bombings and violence in holy places, they force us to ask, in frustration and confusion, just what is it that the people doing these things believe?

And this year, as The Passion of The Christ set off painful discussions between Christians and Jews, the intensity of the experience led many viewers to ask themselves "Just what is it that I believe?"

These are questions that can take us somewhere. These are questions that can open our minds.

"If you vanish the lawlessness from your midst, offer your compassion to the hungry and satisfy the famished creature, then shall your light shine in darkness," wrote the prophet Isaiah.

"Let us cast off the works of darkness and let us put on the armor of light," wrote Paul.

From the Quran: "Can he who was dead, to whom we give life and a light whereby he can walk amongst men, be like him who is in the depths of darkness from which he can never come out?"

In a year of religious controversy and a week when the world seemed to spin out of control, Easter and Passover remind us that we may yet find something common in our differences and some light on the increasingly dark international path we share.

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