Light, Birth Stories, and Feasts
Interfaith Options for Christians at Advent
By Vicki Garlock
For Christians, another Advent season will soon be upon us. As one of the quintessential periods in the liturgical calendar, it might seem like the wrong time to be thinking about interfaith efforts. It’s a feeling further heightened by the encroachment of numerous secular obligations. Who has time for “the other” right now? I tend to view things from a slightly different perspective, though, and I think Advent offers a great opportunity to bring a bit of interfaith into your household. Here are a few ideas to get started.
Light to the World
For Christians, Advent is a time of anticipation. Many churches mark that time by lighting candles on an Advent wreath for each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas/Jesus’ birth. With all four candles lit by Christmas Eve, the wreath burns brightest just when the nights are at their longest (at least in the Northern hemisphere).
The Advent wreath therefore serves as a visual reminder that Jesus, for many, is a light to the world. This is most clearly stated in the first few verses of the Gospel of John.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. [John 1:1-5, NRSV translation]
Interestingly, the Qur’an also refers to the message of Jesus as a light.
And in their footsteps We sent Jesus the son of Mary, confirming the Law that had come before him. We sent him the Gospel. Therein was guidance and light, and confirmation of the Law that had come before him, a guidance and an admonition to those who fear Allah. [Surah 5 (al-Maida), verse 46, Yusuf Ali translation]
So an easy way to make your Advent more interfaith is simply to use “Light” as your theme. It’s no accident that Christmas falls around the same time as the winter solstice, and many Advent/Christmas practices are derived from the ancient pagan traditions of Northern Europe. Teaching your kids about the winter solstice through books, recipes, and crafts is a good place to begin.
The Winter Solstice (written by Ellen Jackson and illustrated by Jan Davey Ellis) and The Shortest Day (written by Wendy Pfeffer and illustrated by Jesse Reisch) are both good book options. And even though Circle Round (by Starhawk, Diane Baker, and Anne Hill) was published in 2000, it’s still a great go-to book for crafts and activities. Because pagan traditions are grounded in our relationship with the earth, focus your activities on plants currently available in your geographical area. Create a small home altar and decorate it with winter fruits and greenery. Bake some pumpkin seeds or flavored nuts. You could even teach older kids how to can/freeze food to last through the winter.
Hanukkah is another one of those light-related holidays that happens at this time of the year. Start with one of the many books available. There are board books, like the Hanukkah “touch and feel” book by Roger Priddy and My First Chanukkah by Tomie dePaola, for toddlers. For slightly older kids, you’ll find pop-up books covering the various Hanukkah traditions, like lighting a menorah or spinning a dreidel. One book, Maccabee! (written by Tilda Balsley and illustrated by David Harrington), even portrays the legendary brothers who took the temple back from the Seleucids, as super heroes. Hanukkah books are found in most local libraries, and many craft/discount stores now sell Hanukkah-related products. You can also find resources at your local synagogue, which offers a great excuse to visit with your kids!
Advent Stories from the Islamic Perspective
Another way to make your Advent more interfaith is to read Islamic versions of typical Advent stories. For example, many Muslims are familiar with the story of Mary/Maryam being told she is pregnant with Jesus/Isa (sometimes spelled Eesa). In that account, Hannah, Maryam’s mother, promised to dedicate her unborn child to God/Allah. Years later, as a young woman serving in the temple, Maryam was visited by the angel Gabriel who told her that she would give birth to a son. Some of the story can be found in Surah 19 (called Maryam) of the Qur’an.
He said: I am but a messenger from your Lord that I may bestow on you a pure boy. She said: How shall I have a boy, when no mortal has touched me, nor am I an unchaste woman?” He said: Thus it shall be; your Lord said: It is insignificant for Me; and: We shall assign him as a Sign to humanity, and as a mercy from Us. It was a decreed command. [Surah 19 (Maryam), Verses 19-21, Laleh Bakhtiar translation]
The Qur’an is non-narrative, for the most part, but Muslims do read stories to their kids based on Qur’anic passages. A good, kid-friendly version of Gabriel’s announcement to Maryam, the subsequent birth of Isa, and Isa’s first days can found here. Note how in the Islamic narrative, Isa is able to talk at birth. On the right is a kid-friendly video of the birth story. The video is seven minutes long, but the narrative about Zachariah, Mary, the birth of Jesus, and Jesus’ first words are in the first 5 minutes (before the quiz). For interested adults, a more complete version of the story, with specific excerpts from the Qur’an, can be found here.
Birth Stories from Other Faith Traditions
You can also make your Advent more interfaith by focusing on amazing birth stories from other traditions, several of which include the idea of a virgin birth. One of the most popular comes from the Buddhist tradition. According to that narrative, an elephant with a lotus flower was responsible for Queen Maya’s pregnancy of Gautama Buddha. In most versions, the Buddha takes seven steps as a newborn infant. In some versions, angels appear and the baby Buddha speaks (much like Isa does in the Islamic narrative). The Life of the Buddha site has kid-friendly narratives of Queen Maya’s elephant dream and the Buddha’s birth. Finally, the 8-minute video above, in English, tells the story.
Add an Intrafaith Twist
If an interfaith Advent seems too far removed from the spirit of the season, you might want to focus on various Advent practices within the Christian tradition. One of the most notable is the Nativity Fast observed in the Orthodox tradition from mid-November until Christmas Eve. Here the word “fast” does not mean a total absence of food. Instead, Orthodox Christians abstain from meat, dairy, fish, wine, and oil, except on certain days of the week. The specifics, if you’re interested, are complex but fascinating and can be found here.
As many Orthodox moms have discovered, the Nativity Fast diet is closely related to a vegan diet, which means many families break out their vegan recipes for the holiday season. One post offering great Orthodox Advent recipes can be found here, but you can also simply search the internet for vegan recipes that you and your kids might enjoy. Just make sure they don’t require any oil if you really want to stick with the rules!
It’s easy to assume that Advent offers few or no opportunities to interact with other faith traditions. After all, the entire focus is on preparing for the arrival of Jesus. However, a little creative thinking reveals several possibilities. During this unsettling time of the year – when the pendulum swings wildly between “traditional Christianity” and “rampant commercialism” – consider a move away from both ends of the continuum, and bring a bit of interfaith into your holiday season.