I've cut and pasted in below a piece that should be published in the Turkish
Daily News (the English language paper here) later this week. It's a first
person piece about my experience of a Christmas service here last year, a
lot of which you'll recognize from last year. (Ugh, I'm already repeating
myself and I've just started [though really had no choice, as needed to get
it out before the holiday itself].) Since this year Christmas again fell
during the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan, the piece is sort of year neutral.
* * *
Christmas Day, Istanbul
The priest mutters his deeply accented English into the microphone,
which amplifies and further distorts his voice. His bluntly pronounced
words rebound through the vast, freezing hall of Saint Antoine Cathedral.
They tell a story familiar to me, about the Son of God being sent to earth
to die for our sins. But here, in the middle of this enormous Muslim City,
the story sounds strange and almost subversive.
And, indeed, the Christ story is at the center of the great Christian
and Muslim divide. Muslims accept only that Christ was a prophet sent by
God, rejecting vehemently that Christ is his son. They see Mohammed's
prophecy, and the Koran, as prompted by the need to correct the mistaken
elevation -- by the Gospel -- of Christ from the flesh to the divine.
The priest appears relieved to turn things over to an African man who,
in a bizarre contrast to the priest?s gold embroidered robe, is wearing a
big, stuffed yellow ski jacket. His English is much better as he announces
that we are now to sing a hymn. The song?s words, handwritten and in
English, are flashed up onto a screen by an overhead projector. The lyrics
are basic. There are several identical stanzas that simply invite Jesus ?to
come?. I grimace slightly when I see that these are followed by a poorly
translated chorus, which asks for the Son of God "to come will be born in
I glance over at Ismail, a Muslim friend who has come with me to the
service. He smiles, gives me a wink. His English is excellent and I am
sure he notices the mistake. I look around at the rest of the people in the
sanctuary. The pews are not even a third full. This is the first service
of the day, and is completely in English. It will be followed by an Italian
and a Turkish one. The crowd at the Turkish service, Ismail tells me, will
overflow into the courtyard in front of the Cathedral, and will consist
mostly of Muslims curious to see a Christmas service. Apparently some
members of St. Antoine's permanent congregation are angry about this, since
many of them will be unable to find a place to sit. Some may even being
forced to stand out in the cold.
Christmas Day, this year, falls within the Muslim holy Month of
Ramadan, during which the faithful are to fast between sunrise and sunset,
or more precisely -- according to the Koran -- between the times one can
discern a white thread from a black one. (Ramadan is celebrated during the
ninth month of the Muslim calendar, which is a lunar one; in the solar
calendar it occurs 11 days earlier each year.) My day had started well
before dawn when I was awoken by our neighborhood's Ramadan drummer, who was
roaming the streets pounding his drum and hollering at the top of his lungs.
Since Ramadan began several days ago, all over Istanbul similar drummers
have been setting out into the streets, some as early as 3 a.m. A tradition
originating from a time when clocks were less prevalent, their aim is to
rustle the believers up out of bed in time for them to have a meal before
the sun comes up.
Ramadan is by far the most important religious observance of the year
for Muslims. Somewhat like the Jewish celebration of Yom Kippur, which some
say influenced it, Ramadan is a period of atonement and forgiveness. Total
remission of sins can be achieved if one fasts with pure intentions. I have
been told that in Turkey, which is 98% Muslim, well over 50% of all the
Turks fast during Ramadan. That estimate is certainly consistent with what
I have seen and heard. The majority of the Turks I come in contact tell me
they fast. The streets of Istanbul are normally full of vendors selling all
sorts of food. There are noticeably fewer of them now and they are
significantly less busy. During the day some restaurants are closed, many
of the rest all but empty. I myself have been careful to be respectful and
eat only indoors, avoiding among other things my usual practice of grabbing
a simit (a bagel like round of bread) and piece of fruit in the morning and
eating them on my way to work.
Ismail leans over and asks if the service is similar to ones in the
States. I whisper back that I was raised Protestant and had not seen enough
Catholic services in my life to say. ?Raised? Protestant was really much
too strong a word to use. My early religious education involved little more
than an hour each Sunday down in the basement of the local Presbyterian
Church (first in Westfield, New Jersey, later in Aurora, Illinois) with my
twin sister Sue. There, during our Sunday school class, we often struggle
for the entire hour to suppress giggling fits to which we only seemed
susceptible in church. Sitting now in St. Antoine?s, I check myself to see
if any of those fits still linger, am relieved to discover that none do.
The priest has returned and is now saying something about light being
shown into the darkness, and about how the darkness was unable to defeat
that light. The image of a light, tiny but robust, surrounded by infinite
darkness, is a particularly powerful one for me today, especially given that
I am so far from what I am most familiar.
A new voice -- the priest had been replaced again -- asks us to rise.
The words of ?Come Let Us Adore Him? are projected onto the screen. I lean
over toward Ismail, whisper that this is a very famous song. He kids under
his breath that perhaps it?s one of God?s greatest hits. I smile,
straighten back up, listen to the song begin.
There is no choir, only a single guitar for accompaniment. It takes a
while for the congregation?s singing to build up. Though it never becomes
particularly loud, it is beautiful. Eventually I join in too. As if
something ethereal, our voices drift up through the tremendous space that
envelops us, seeming only to just barely penetrate the thick, cold air. I
am moved by how wonderful our singing sounds and am surprised to feel a
tear, though already ice-cold, in the corner of my eye. Most of the people
here are Westerners, I suppose, and I wonder how many came like me to be
reminded of home -- a few cold foreigners dwarfed by a Cathedral that is
itself dwarfed by the immense Moslem city surrounding it. For the first
time since arriving in Istanbul, I feel a bit homesick.
The song ends. The priest returns, invites everyone up to take
communion. Thinking that Ismail might find it interesting, I suggest that we
walk to the front of the church to watch. We do. But when we get there I
am surprised that our way is blocked by a dozen or so television cameramen,
who have begun filming the ceremony. I had not seen them before and wonder
where they might have been hiding.
Some, now with the powerful lights attached to their cameras turned on,
swing around and start filming those who have remained in the pews. An
older woman, who is kneeling and praying, is caught in one of those lights.
The cameraman moves in closer and is soon no more than a couple feet away.
With her eyes closed, the elderly woman continues her praying. I wonder how
she can concentrate and, indeed, if she can. But she continues, or at least
pretends to, perhaps seeing it as an act of defiance.
The cameramen get even bolder and are now moving freely about the
church, filming others at point blank range. Ismail says he does not want
to be on the evening news and tells me he will meet me outside. I return to
my seat and watch the end of communion, wrapped up like it is, so
incongruously, in the hectic filming. And I wonder how God would view all
this, his two most successful religions bumping up against each other in
such an awkward fashion. Which of the many ways these two religions have
come up with to worship him would he approve of, disapprove?
This afternoon, in Istanbul, the few Christians families that live here
will be feasting and celebrating with their families and friends, perhaps
exchanging gifts. Early in the evening, after the blast of the cannon shots
heard all over Istanbul that signal the end of the day's Ramadan fasting,
pious Muslims will sit down to their own post-fast celebratory meal, the
Iftar. Later still, the mosques will be filled, though mostly by men, where
special Ramadan prayers will be said. Istanbul itself is remarkable -- at
least to westerners -- for the many domes of its huge Ottoman mosques and
the hundreds of minarets that spike its skyline, as well as the calls to
prayer that pierce its urban din five times each day.
Yet when the day ends, throughout Istanbul, each of us will fall asleep
under the same black sky.
"In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not." *
* Translation from the Bible.
"Praise be to God, Lord of the worlds!
The compassionate, the merciful!
King on the day of reckoning!
Thee only do we worship, and to Thee do we cry for help.
Guide Thou us on the straight path,
The path of those to whom Thou hast been gracious; -- with whom Thou are not
angry, and who go not astray." **
** Translation from the Koran.
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