Washing of Feet

From the blog of Sister Isabel Smyth
www.interfaithjourneys.net

Easter weekend and, in the interfaith world, the two great religions of Judaism and Christianity have been celebrating their foundational festivals. Both festivals tell stories of liberation and remember the values and beliefs on which their religion is founded. For Judaism the celebrations take place at home and are focussed on the ritual meal eaten on the first of the eight days of Pesach. The story is about how God intervened in their history to free them from slavery and set them on the way to becoming a people. The refrain throughout the story is “on this night…..” because the memory of this saving act is an eternally present reality.

The Christian celebration of Easter takes place in community – in Churches – and over three days enacts the last days in the life of Jesus, from his last supper with his disciples, to his death as  a common criminal and his resurrection on the third day. It too is a festival of remembrance which makes ever present the possibility of liberation from the slavery of selfishness to a life of love and service.

Because Christianity grew out of Judaism it recalls the liberation of the People of Israel and celebrates God’s presence both in creation and in history.  It goes just that little bit further in that it also celebrates God’s presence in our very humanity and in our very human struggle to live a good and wholesome life. Like Pesach it is a festival of movement and journey from despair to hope, death to life, selfishness to love.  For Christians the story of Jesus’ passage through death to resurrection contains the truth of the continuing power and presence of Jesus and the possibility of new life that’s always a possibility.

Easter isn’t a story about the past but an insight into a truth about the present. Who can doubt that we live in a world that’s in need of redemption?  Surely it’s obvious from the mess we’re making of the environment, from the violence that so characterises our race, from the growth of isolationist politics, from our growing xenophobia etc. etc. The bombings in Sri Lanka, coming at this particular time, bear witness to that fact. But the Easter story tells us that death and destruction don’t have the last word, that things can change, that peace is possible, that new life can come out of old if we pray for it, are open to it, welcome it and work for it. Northern Ireland is an example of that and there are examples in other parts of the world and in our own individual lives if we look for them. This can give us hope.

One of the most moving moments during the Christian celebrations of the last days of Jesus is the washing of the feet. On Holy Thursday the priest presiding at the service washes the feet of 12 members of the congregation to re-enact the washing of the disciples feet by Jesus as they took their last supper together. It was an unusual gesture. Feet were washed on entering a house but never during a meal nor carried out by the master of the household. Peter protested and was told by Jesus that he could have no part with him unless he had his feet washed. It was for Jesus a sign of friendship. Then Jesus said ‘If I your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example,  that you should do as I have done to you”.  In this action Jesus changes the order of things – the master has become the servant. There’s a way through the desire to dominate or the fear of being dominated, a way through competition for resources that leaves some overly wealthy and others impoverished, a way through the xenophobia that divides the world into ‘them’ and ‘us’. And that way is service.

Thoughts and Perspectives

A blog by Anthony MacIsaac

Events of the past few months have only highlighted how very important inter-religious dialogue is for our society, and for ourselves in the end. Not all of these events have been pleasant, some indeed have been shocking and tragic.

From my own Catholic perspective events in the institution of the Church, regarding sexual abuse and it’s cover-up, have rocked and made vulnerable trust, hope and even faith in the whole project. I have heard this from many of my friends committed to the faith, and have felt something of it myself recently. Such problems that can present themselves from within the heart of a community of faith, raise perhaps the deepest spiritual questions to us.

They also reveal how we can never truly be certain in our journey – organised religion tends to provide frameworks, and frameworks on occasion make it hard to find our way. It is my view that we can only hold fast to that which we find to be life-giving. If we believe in a living God, as I do, then this is essential. With time, certainly if we are people of hope, the community may transform and might remedy the mistakes of its members – however high ranking or low ranking they may be. We may be needed in this very task!

It is helpful to consider that similar divisions within other communities also exist. To take an example, in contemporary Islam, there is this tension between the life of faith in a secularising world and the rigid interpretations applied to the code of Shari’ah Law. The recent legalisation of stoning to death in the Sultanate of Brunei conveys precisely this contradiction, and indeed points out the problem. Reading this development, we can and should only feel outrage.

For many Muslims, this is also the prevailing feeling. Yet among my own friends who happen to be Muslim, despite these feelings, there is also a reluctance to condemn the Sultanate and certainly a reluctance to question the Law in its ideal. Is this similar to what we see among those Christians who wish to avoid the subject of child abuse? Maybe. Criticising the frameworks of one’s religion presents natural difficulties, and is a delicate matter indeed.

It might well be rare also to find Jewish people ready to condemn some of Israel’s actions. Even although it remains a state apart from the religion, the cultural connections are so strong that to many it too is part of the broader Jewish identity. They may well feel that in critiquing it, they would thus be critiquing their own faith. Yet this is still a controversy generating headlines each year, and causing untold misery on all sides. So how is cooperation between the different faiths in Israel and Palestine, without some honest discussion on the hard issues, going to be possible?

This hard dialogue – interior and exterior – is absolutely vital in my eyes. The desires in the Abrahamic faiths are noble – we each seek to lead good and Holy lives, shining with hope, love and peace. We are even after the same God. This gives all of us, who are of good will, a great starting point. For when we are of good will, we are also committed to a common Humanism. This sharing of our simple Humanity; augmented by our beliefs, and anchored in God, helps us work together.

Prhaps taking our institutions a little less seriously, and focusing instead on the spiritual bounties that they offer, would help in resolving any discomfort or even shame we feel when confronted by scandal and abuse. Of whatever stripe, in whatever community.

Should we truly desire change, and the promotion of all that is just and humane, we need to be strong and brave. Moreover, we ought not to “go it alone”. The role of the Prophet “crying out in the wilderness” is that of a hero, often beyond that of which we may be capable. It is very often also unnecessary. Indeed, finding like-minded people within our tradition is significant for helping us resolve the interior conflicts we may feel. Finding also like-minded people outwith our tradition helps in dealing with the exterior world – and once more, in not taking it all too seriously! This is where inter-religious dialogue as such comes in.

The solidarity shown by various people of faith around the world, including in Scotland, with our mosques was inspiring – after the horrifying terror attacks in New Zealand a few weeks ago. Charity breeds charity, and I know of many who were touched deeply by these gestures – however small.

We can only hope that as crises erupt throughout the religious landscape, the quiet and good willed spirit of compassion and Holiness continues to prevail in the end. Much of this starts with how we interact as individuals, with all the people we meet. To avoid the poison of “cultural war”, it is vital we have our say and make our mark in the lives of others, in a positive way. The alternative is beneath the aspirations shared among the great world religions, and one of only yet more pain. 

Naw Ruz

The Baha’i faith will celebrate “Naw-Ruz” or New Year, on March 20th through the evening of March 21st.

The Baha’i faith is a growing faith in Scotland. Scotland’s Baha’i history began around 1905. This was around the time when European visitors, met Abdu’l-Baha, who was the leader of the Baha’i religion at the time. The Baha’i religion has grown in Scotland in the last twenty years and now there are over 7,000 Baha’i’s across the entire United Kingdom, with a large percentage living in Scotland. The Baha’i faith was founded in 19th century Iran by Baha’u’llah, whose title means the Glory of God. The Baha’i religion is centered around the teachings of Baha’u’llah. In a quote by Baha’u’llah, he says, “The purpose of religion as revealed from the heaven of God’s holy Will is to establish unity and concord amongst the peoples of the world; make it not the cause of dissension and strife.” The Baha’i faith teaches the fundamental worth of all religions. At the same time, the Baha’i faith also teaches about the harmony and equality of all people.

The Baha’i new year, or Naw-Ruz is a special time of year for the Baha’i faith. While for Baha’is this holiday is part of their religion, in other countries it is considered a secular holiday. It is traditionally and currently celebrated as an Iranian new year holiday, however, many other countries across the Middle East and Central Asia have also adopted Naw-Ruz including, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iraq, Armenia, Georgia, Russia, Pakistan, Syria, and Tajikistan Kurdistan.

The words “Naw-Ruz” stand for “new day”, and it is a new year festival which falls at the spring equinox. It is a day which also symbolizes the new life of spring. The festival is usually observed with prayer and celebration. “The celebration is often combined with a feast, as the sunset before Naw-Ruz signals the end of the 19 day fast.”. The 19 day fast represents a spiritual preparation for Naw-Ruz, Music and dancing can also take place during the celebration of Naw-Ruz along with visiting friends and family and exchanging gifts.

We wish all our Baha’i friends a happy Naw-Ruz! You can read Archbishop Conti’s letter of warm wishes and greetings to the Baha’i community of Scotland on our website.

The Ark of Fraternity

Blog by Sister Isabel Smyth

Pope Francis made a historic visit to Abu Dhabi, the first Pope to visit the Arabian Peninsula and by all accounts the visit seems to have been a success. At the Interreligious Gathering the Pope acknowledged that he was following in the footsteps of St Francis of Assisi who had met the Sultan al-Malik al Kamil 800 years ago during the Fifth Crusade, a meeting during which each recognised the other as men who knew and loved God. It’s said that for twenty days they conversed with one another about the ways of God.  Like his namesake, Pope Francis came to Abu Dhabi as a pilgrim of peace, stating “I have welcomed the opportunity to come here as a believer thirsting for peace, as a brother seeking peace with the brethren. We are here to desire peace, to promote peace, to be instruments of peace”.  He called those present at the Interreligious Gathering at which he spoke to a new way of being together, “we too in the name of God, in order to safeguard peace, need to enter together as one family into an ark which can sail the stormy seas of the world: the ark of fraternity”

What a wonderful image – the ark of fraternity! So often the ark has been used as a bulwark against those who are different, protecting communities from the enemy, the only place that is secure and safe in a troubling world. Noah’s ark, to which the Pope refers, saved Noah and his family from the destruction of the rest of the population who were living a sinful life. The ark  was a place of  justice and goodness and only within it was one safe. This image was transferred to Christianity where Jesus was seen as the Ark of Salvation. Only within the confines of a relationship with Jesus could people be saved and protected from the forces of evil that raged not just in the world but in other faiths too. For the Catholic Church this ark came to be associated with the Catholic Church so that membership of that Church alone could guarantee salvation. Thank God this attitude has changed though many religions are still suspicious and fearful of religious proselytization and conversion which reflects a little of that mind-set.

Now we have the image of the ark extended and expanded to include all those who desire peace and recognise the common humanity of all.  We are quite literally in the same boat, members of the same species, interconnected with one another, facing the same hopes and joys, concerned about and vulnerable to the future of our planet and our world. As the Pope said, echoing his two predecessors, “There is no alternative: we will either build the future together or there will not be a future.”

In his speech the Pope set out a full agenda for humanity if we are to establish this ark of fraternity and truly recognise one another as brothers and sisters. This includes an appreciation of plurality and recognition of difference, a sense of our own identity, while respecting the identity of others, a protection of the rights and freedoms of others especially religious freedom. What the Pope wants for all of us is an open identity that doesn’t in any way compromise who we are or closes itself off from others but is enriched by our relationships.

Dialogue of course plays a part in all of this. Religions, the Pope says, “cannot renounce the urgent task of building bridges between peoples and cultures. The time has come when religions should more actively exert themselves, with courage and audacity, and without pretence, to help the human family deepen the capacity for reconciliation, the vision of hope and the concrete paths of peace”.   And something not often mentioned in interreligious dialogue, but mentioned by the Pope, is prayer “as for the future of interreligious dialogue, the first thing we have to do is pray, and pray for one another: we are brothers and sisters!”

During his stay in Abu Dhabi the Pope signed a document with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb. Its title is: On Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together. It’s easy to dismiss these kind of initiatives. Often documents and statements are assigned to the bookshelf if not history and readily forgotten but the fact that two very prominent leaders from Christianity and Islam have signed such a document is significant and it’s always on hand to be used as reference for the best intentions of the two faiths, even if we, their members, don’t always live up to the ideal. So what do we do with it? Hopefully we Christians and Muslims, with others, will dialogue about it. Hopefully, we will take it seriously and begin to think in terms of an ark of fraternity and, as the document suggests, the document itself will become the object of research and reflection in all schools, universities and institutes of formation”. Now wouldn’t that be something?

St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art

 Harry Dunlop reflects on the work of St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art.

Over the past year we have been quietly marking the 25th anniversary of the opening of the museum in April 1993.  A lot has changed since that here in Glasgow and beyond. However when it comes to interfaith dialogue and co-operation the cultural and religious landscape has indeed changed considerably. When the museum first opened our only interfaith stakeholder and partner was the Glasgow Sharing of Faiths group – perhaps the most important multi-faith organisation in Scotland for a generation.

In April as part of our monthly Faith to Faith dialogue workshops we marked this milestone anniversary with a conversation between four key people who were deeply involved in the creation and subsequent development of the museum story: the Project Director Mark O’Neill, Dianna Wolfson of the Jewish Community, Brij Gandhi of the Hindu Community and Sister Isobel Smyth from the Christian Community.  Dianna, Brij and Isobel are all original members of Glasgow Sharing of Faiths Group and it was a real insight for those present as they shared not only what drives their personal commitment to interfaith but also what the St Mungo Museum means to them as a unique interfaith resource.

Glasgow Sharing of Faiths no longer exists and has been superseded by Interfaith Glasgow.  Our partnership working and co-operation with Interfaith Glasgow continues to grow from strength to strength – indeed our joint monthly Faith to Faith programme is an example of that mutual flourishing.  On Sunday our November event took place at Garnethill Synagogue where we listened to stories of Jewish and Sikh soldiering and how these faith communities contributed and in many cases gave their lives in both world wars and in other conflicts.  It was encouraging and moving to learn about these important but often overlooked historical narratives. Another example is the recent successful ‘Religious Dress in the Flesh’ event created with the support of another partner – the University of Glasgow.  At this event people from different faith communities shared stories about the meaning and significance of their religious and cultural dress from personal as well as historical perspectives.  Following the event an excellent film was made which is now being shared on Social Media. This is a good example of how to disseminate positive dialogue to a wider audience in a society that for many feels increasingly hostile to religious expression.

Like others, staff at the museum mark Interfaith Week. I’d like to share with you some aspects one of these projects – a joint Schools Projects organised in partnership with the Interreligious Dialogue Committee of the Bishops Conference of Scotland and pupils from Holyrood, St Roch’s and Lourdes Catholic Secondary schools in Glasgow.  Since September the group have been exploring this year’s theme ‘Connecting Generations’ by meeting people of different faiths, exploring the values faith communities cherish in common and visiting places of worship including Glasgow Central Mosque and Garnethill Synagogue.  It has been a great project and this week and next they are holding events within their own schools to celebrate and share what they learned and experienced.

Young people never cease to amaze me with their inquisitiveness and ability to articulate in a straight forward way ideas and concepts that we adults sometimes over complicate and over theorize.  As part of the project the pupils were asked why they should bother marking Scottish Interfaith Week in the first place and indeed why Interfaith is important in a modern Scotland.  For one pupil Interfaith is all about understanding the different faiths and their places of worship.  For another Interfaith is quite simply about building friendships. The pupils’ openness and eagerness to engage with people of different faiths is inspiring in contrast perhaps to other generations of religious people who are still a bit uneasy about Interfaith fearing it is about compromising what they cherish to be true and unique.

So – Interfaith is all about making new friends.

Yes – I believe it’s really is that simple. Interfaith is all about making new friends.

So – let’s hope all across Glasgow and all across Scotland  that we continue to make new friendships and renew old ones. 

A Hannukah and Advent Party

Adapted from the blog of Sister Isabel Smyth.

www.interfaithjourneys.net

Before Christmas the Council of Christians and Jews organised a Hannukah and Advent party. These are festivals of light and have a focus on candles which links the two festivals.

The hanukkiah, the candelabra used at Hanukkah, has 9 candles.  On each of the eight evenings of the festival a candle is lit from the ninth one which is called a helper or shamash so that by the eighth day of the festival all nine are burning. The tradition is to display these candles at a window to illustrate that the Jewish community can now enjoy religious freedom. Today large hanukkiahs are lit in major cities and public places such as the Scottish Parliament and the White House as an expression of religious freedom and tolerance.

The lighting of the candles commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over the forces of a Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes who, in the second century BCE, desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem and forbade Jews to practice their faith. Defeating Antiochus, the Maccabees purified the Temple but found they hadn’t enough oil to light the everlasting lamp. Miraculously the little oil they did have lasted for eight days until replenishments could come. This is the miracle celebrated at Hanukkah with prayers, gifts, family fun and games. It’s a family, happy time to cheer us up on dark winter days – at least in this part of the world.

Advent is also a time for the lighting of candles but it looks forward rather than back. It begins the Christian year and is a time of preparation for Christmas. Some people use the time to do some kind of penance in the sense of a discipline to free them from a habit or even an obsession like giving up social media for four weeks. And there are candles. In some homes but in many churches there will be an Advent wreath – a circle of everlasting greenery to symbolise the infinity of God, purple ribbons as a sign of anticipation and waiting and four candles for each of the four Sundays of Advent. Three of them are purple and one pink for Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday in which the opening prayer in worship is Rejoice. It’s now become common for a white candle to be put in the middle of the wreath to symbolise the birth of Jesus at Christmas.

What made our party this week so enjoyable was the presence of children. We held the event at the Synagogue just as the pupils from the local Jewish primary school were leaving, having visited the Synagogue to light the Hanukkah candles. Their school is rather a special one as it shares a campus with a local Catholic school. We think it’s the only shared Catholic – Jewish campus in the world and we’re very proud of it. Each school promotes the ethos of their particular faith but the pupils share the playground and are getting to know one another. The Jewish children, though, who told us the story of Hanukkah were not at the school but were two of the home-schooled children of the Rabbi. With great confidence they told us about the Maccabees, the lighting of candles, the gift giving, the eating of doughnuts but what got us all laughing and participating was a game that had us passing little parcels left and right as the words were mentioned in their story – parcels that contained a reward for all of us. And of course we lit four candles for the fourth day of Hanukkah accompanied by the Rabbi’s blessing.

It was the head girl and head boy from the Catholic primary who told us about Advent. Telling us that the Advent Wreath helped Christians take time to think about the real meaning of Christmas and reflect on how they could bring God’s light, joy, peace and love into the world today they explained the four candles – the first one representing hope. which is like a light shining in a dark place: the second candle representing peace and reminding us to try to be peacemakers in our schools and homes; the third representing the joy we feel celebrating the birth of Jesus and the fourth one representing the love we share in Jesus and how we try to show this love in the way we treat those around us, not just friends and families but also those less fortunate than ourselves.

As you can imagine the children were very well received. I found it very moving to see the children from both faiths participate in our celebration. What a contrast to the enmity that existed between our communities for centuries but has thankfully given way to a new reality. The shared campus offers such hope for the future. Already the children from both   schools have collaborated on helping the homeless, enjoyed a ceilidh together and are now beginning to learn a little about one another’s faith. As one of the children said “we really do enjoy one another’s company and love finding about one another’s faith. In St Clare’s we are always saying we are making memories to last a lifetime but we also think we are making lifelong friends.”  We cannot ask much more than that.

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