Christmas is upon us! The annual red and green extravaganza. The green of the holly and ivy hanging with stately beauty and the dollars flying about in frantic chaos. Red, like the blood of parents in the aisles of Target, giving their all to make their child’s, and perhaps their childhood, dreams come true. There are happenings and hopes. Dramas and dreams. Quick runs to church, to the store, to the bottle. And a battle to the death between gratitude and greed.
Sometimes I think Muslims know better than us. There’s huge diversity, of course, but in general they don’t celebrate Jesus’ birthday, or maybe do so in relatively muted ways: a family gathering, a Christmas greeting to a Christian coworker, maybe a small gift to a child.
They go all out on some other holidays: There’s the celebration at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan called Eid Al Fitr. This one is candy-town much like Christmas. The bigger celebration is Eid Al Adha at the end of the Mecca trek or Hajj. It commemorates Abraham’s willingness to obey God to the point of sacrificing his son. Families get together and sometimes kids get money for this Eid.
Maybe Muslims have similar struggles to ours in separating the spiritual significance of a celebration from the happy, stressful scaffolding that arises around it. I don’t know about your house and family, although I could guess, but it’s tough around here to ponder with Mary, to wonder with Joseph, even to rejoice with Simeon as he looks forward to the pain and promise this little bundle of joy will be for Jew and Gentile alike.
Have you wondered what Muslims think of Jesus?
The miracle that Christians and Muslims both believe
This brief conversation shines some light on that: Noor was a curious, compassionate, and smart Muslim woman. She was pursuing a Ph.d. in math in France, far from her Damascus home. She and a friend of mine had talked about family, faith, the growing fear in Syria, and hope for the future.
Having asked her a number of questions, my friend backed off a bit and said, “Do you have any questions for me?”
Noor paused, maybe wondering if it was OK to possibly shame her new friend with what she was really wondering, then decided it was worth the risk, “Do you guys really think Jesus is the son of God?”
This was no theological smackdown. No apologetic challenge. Rather, a brow-furrowed, cautious inquiry: “Can someone as kind as you think something as gross and terrible as what I’ve been taught you think?”
My friend replied brilliantly, “Yes, we do. But not the way you think we do.” Noor’s raised eyebrows invited her to continue. “We believe it was a miracle. The Holy Spirit came over Mary. There was nothing sexual.”
You could almost see the weight lift from Noor. “That’s what we believe. That it was a miracle!”
Like many Muslims, she’d been taught that Christians think God and Mary got together and had little baby Jesus. Can you imagine how that colors what they see at Christmas? What they might think of people who claim to love and follow Jesus?
What Muslims and Christians agree on about Jesus
Again, allowing for diversity in a population numbering over a billion and a half, here’s what most Muslims share with Christians in terms of thinking about Jesus.
We both believe Jesus:
- was born of the virgin Mary (Maryam in Arabic),
- was sinless,
- performed miracles,
- is the Word of God,
- is not dead,
- and that he will return to Earth someday.
We disagree regarding the core Christian conviction that Jesus is both all man and all God—with the same passion you feel like that’s a big deal. “Jesus is God and that leads to a long, important list of implications,” Muslims also say, “Jesus cannot be God. God is one. Straying from that leads to a long list of implications!”
As you know, believing something strongly does not make it true. Although I don’t understand the concept of the Trinity (I’m tempted to say “completely,” but that would oversell my position!), I do believe it’s the best way to understand Jesus, the gospel, and the cosmic purposes of God.
Now, if I’d like to convince a Muslim of that, what might be my best approach? Much has been written on this, but can I mention two things that probably don’t work?
Engaging in puerile “Is so” “Is not” arguments probably won’t accomplish a great deal. Neither will posting anti-Islamic memes on Facebook. Telling your mostly Christian Facebook friends again that Islam is not a religion of peace doesn’t do much to advance the eternal kingdom of God.
What about this: What if we renewed our efforts to act like Jesus toward Muslims and invited them to talk about Jesus? To examine what the Quran says about him, to read what the Bible says he actually said, to consider what he actually did?
It’s not the key to everything. And I’m reluctant to say anyone’s approach is flat-out wrong. But I have seen efforts like this work.
I’m also eager to see them tried with the current influx of Afghans into our cities and neighborhoods.
Isa on the way
Can I close by sharing something magical that just happened in my world?
Over the past two months, my church has been collecting material to furnish an apartment for a newly arriving Afghan family. Yesterday, some buds and I loaded the stuff up and delivered it to the new place. The three brothers who will live there helped us unload as the complex staff cleaned and painted the apartment. We didn’t meet the wife of the brother who’s married. She couldn’t help us unload because she was in the hospital, laboring to birth their first baby!
I got word this morning that the brothers slept in their new home, their first stable place in probably three months, and the even better news that a baby boy was born at 5 a.m.! I passed a message to the new, proud father, “Name the boy whatever you wish, but having been born this close to Christmas, I will always call him Isa.”
My church friends and I were honored to get to play a small part in this situation. I was more honored to meet the like-minded men and women who are giving so much and working so hard to act like Jesus to these newcomers. I can hardly begin to imagine what those four, now five, have gone through in recent months, but I can imagine how Jesus would hold them, looking into their eyes, and say, “I’m glad you’ve made it this far. I’m with you. I’ve got your back. I love you.”
Merry Christmas to you, and happy halalidays!
NOTE: If I can help you in your or your church’s efforts to connect with Muslims, please let me know. If you need some great ideas about how to connect with Muslims, sign up for my super short weekly email and get “Ten Simple Ways Normal People Can Be Nice to Muslims” for free.