We recently came out of Lent, and are presently celebrating the joy of Easter. But, in this time of universal distress due to the corona virus pandemic, understanding the ways in which other faithful people reach into themselves as we do in Lent and Holy Week has its benefits.
For starters, let’s just review for ourselves the origins of Lent, for doing so will help us appreciate all the more the season we’re presently in: Easter. When we look at Lent’s origins, we see that it does not begin with the burning of palms on Ash Wednesday but the pouring of water at Easter.
Were we to seek a path to guide us thru the days of Lent, we would not just walk on the narrow road of penitential introspection but also the wide road of baptismal consecration. Through its twofold theme of repentance and baptism, the season of Lent disposes both the catechumens and the faithful to celebrate the paschal mystery of the Lord’s death, resurrection, and sending forth the Holy Spirit.
Indeed, the origin, goal and meaning of the forty days of Lent are discovered by gazing first on the Three Great Days from Holy Thursday eve through Good Friday and Holy Saturday to Easter Sunday eve– in other words, the Paschal Triduum.
The season of Lent is a time of deepening and renewal of our own baptismal identity and mission, and a communal preparation for the baptismal celebration that is Easter’s Vigil.
In short, the forty days of Lent are about baptismal remembrance. The Three Great Days are about renewal and celebration of baptismal identity. And the fifty days of the Easter season are about our common baptismal mission to the world. They are like a Sunday to the whole year.
On April 23 this year, our Muslim neighbors entered into Ramadan, their devotional period somewhat similar to our Lent, and they will be engaged in their daily practice until May 24. In the hadith, which Muslims understand to be an account of the words and teachings of its founder the prophet Muhammad, it says: “Islam has been erected on five pillars: witness that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is the messenger of God; doing prayer; contributing to charity; observing the fast of the month of Ramadan; carrying out the pilgrimage to the holy House (Mecca) when it is possible to do so.”
The prayer (salat) is to be performed five times each day, corresponding to the important turns of the day (dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset and evening). The prayer is composed of bodily movements and simple words which express the complete submission to God of the one who is praying.
The daily fast (siyam) of the month of Ramadan gives the worshipper an opportunity to experience hunger, thirst, and abstinence as an offering given to God.
The contribution to charity (zakat) permits the believers to share with the poor and the needy the material goods which they have acquired, and to purify by that means their use of that which remains.
The pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca—to be accomplished at least once in a lifetime for those who have the financial means—takes them back to the sources of their faith and history, prepares them for and leads them to the grace of contrition and forgiveness, deepening their conversion to God.
During the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from sun-up to sun-down, then gather together—in mosques, homes, restaurants, and elsewhere—to break their fast each evening of the month. Sometimes these dinners, called Iftars, are small family affairs, while others are more festive gatherings of larger groups. Muslims generally welcome Christians and Jews to join them in this meal. This year, however, given the directives and limitations regarding group gatherings, many Muslims will only be connecting with one another on their computers through zoom.
Overall, Ramadan is a collective retreat of the Muslim community during which multiple prayers and meditations are offered to God. For many American Muslims, Ramadan is a month that holds religious, family, cultural, and deeply personal meanings, each informing how they share, reflect, and celebrate together.
During this pandemic, faith communities around the globe are rethinking how to be in community, how to stay true to their religious and cultural ideals during this time of uncertainty. As was/is the case with us Christians during Holy Week and Easter, Muslims are currently having a very different experience of their cherished holy days as well.
We Christians are called to respect the sincere worship by Muslims of the living God. Even though our forms and ceremonies of prayer, fasting, almsgiving and pilgrimage differ in various ways, it is good for us—Christians and Muslims—to be aware that we possess in common certain ancient prayer practices of invocation, litany, intercession, meditation retreat, and that by means of these we renew continually our spiritual energy and strength.
When you pass by your Muslim neighbor, you might want to say “As-Salam-u-Alaikum” (pronounced “as-saa-laam-muu-ah-lay-kum”) -- “Peace be unto you”.
Fr. Thomas Ryan, CSP, directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, located at the Paulist Center in Boston.