Geraldine Brooks was a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal where she covered the wars in Bosnia, Somalia, and the Middle East. She is also a Pulitzer Prize winning author for the book, “March.” Her latest novel, “People of the Book” tells a story of intrigue and mystery similar to the DaVinci code. The subject of the novel is an ancient haggadah. A haggadah is a book that tells the story of the Exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt, led by Moses, Aaron and Miriam, through the Red Sea. It is the Passover story told each year on the eve of Passover at the Jewish Seder meal. Brooks crafted this story of fiction on the few details that are known about the famous Sarajevo Haggadah, a beautifully illustrated 500 year old manuscript that somehow travelled from Spain to Vienna and eventually to Sarajevo. It survived the book burnings of the Inquisition, two world wars and the book burnings of the Nazi’s, and the war between Bosnia and Croatia. It’s a story of how three religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all born from the same roots – from Abraham and Moses – participated in the creation and survival of this haggadah. And, while the story is fiction, it is based on some evidence about the real Sarajevo Haggadah, of three faith traditions working together, in its creation, its history, and its survival.
It appears that the real haggadah was first created during a time in history called the Conviviencia, when Jews, Christians, and Muslims coexisted in Spain in relative peace, and exchanged ideas and culture freely. The Conviviencia period lasted for about 500 years, from 1000 to 1499. The Sarajevo Haggadah is significant not only for its history but for its beautiful illustrations.
The story Brooks crafts around this Haggadah travels back and forth in time, from the 21st century ancient manuscript conservationist, a woman named Hanna from Australia, through the various significant periods in the books history, with enough suspense and intrigue to warrant the comparison to the DaVinci code.
I offer this book review this morning because I think the premise of this book points us in the same direction as our scripture readings this morning – to ponder the ways in which God expresses God’s self in the world and what it means, in the broadest of terms to be the body of Christ, which I suspect is greater than Christianity and includes our sisters and brothers in Judaism and Islam. Now I doubt that a Jewish or Muslim person would appreciate being considered a part of the Body of Christ, but if we remember that Christ is God incarnate then I think we can say that these three religions are expressions of the body of God.
Many years ago I read another book called The Good Heart. It was based on a presentation given by the Dalai Lama to a group of Christian meditators in England who invited him to come to their conference as their guest speaker. The idea was that each morning the Dalai Lama would be given a text from the Christian Gospels. He would then go off and meditate on the reading for a few hours. He would have no advance notice on what the text would be and he would not utilize any books to unpack the meaning of the text. He was just given the text and left to meditate on it. After a few hours the group would gather and the Dalai Lama would offer a reflection on what the text means. The group was consistently amazed at how Christian the Dalai Lamas’ understanding was of the Gospel readings. In other words, he got it. When asked if he thought all people should convert to Buddhism, since it seemed to this crowd to be a source of great wisdom, the Dalai Lama said no. He believes that there are a variety of religions in this world for a reason, and we should each practice the religion that speaks most deeply into our beings and helps us grow as people of faith. He said there was probably some merit in helping people who have no faith to find a religion that speaks to them so that they can be more fulfilled in life, but there was no real purpose in converting people from one faith to another. We may or may not agree with that premise, but it does point to a deep appreciation for the Body of God. It also reminds me of the Rule of Benedict, for those who practice Benedictine spirituality – the Rule of Benedict helps us understand how every activity and encounter is holy and reflective of divine inspiration – that God is all around us, in and through us, and all we meet and do. This is what some call the “Stillspeaking God.” The God who speaks to us in stillness, the God who is still speaking to us even to this day.
It also points us to ponder what Parker Palmer, that great Quaker author, educator, and activist, describes as “deep obedience” – about how we listen to God and let God speak through us, or what he calls, “sound- through.” Paul Tillich, a 20th century theologian, once described three approaches to authority and law: heteronomy, the rule of an outside force or imposed law; autonomy, individualistic self-rule; and theonomy, alignment with God’s vision for our lives and the law of our being. Theonomy is not imposed from without but reflects our deepest nature and what is truly good for us as persons. From this perspective, the law of God – or as our scripture this morning says, the law of Moses – inspires us to that deep-obedience, the ability to let God “sound through” our lives as the foundation for the well-being of person and society. (Process and Faith Blog).
Nehemiah describes this same idea with the words we heard this morning about Ezra reading the scroll and the people listening, all who could hear with meaning. In other words, not just listening to the words but really understanding the meaning of the law of God, which Jesus summarizes for us as “Love God, Love neighbor, love self.” The Dalai Lama exhibits this kind of sounding-through love of the Stillspeaking God. And I suspect that people living in Spain during the Conviviencia, Muslims, Jews, and Christians, had a deep understanding of this too. When we allow or provide room for that idea of love, God’s love, to listen through us, we begin to understand what deep obedience really means. How broad and deep God intends for us to live and love in our lives. Jesus points to this as well in our Gospel reading when he states that the scripture has been fulfilled in their hearing….that listening to the word of God, deeply in our being, meditating on it until it lives and breathes through us, is an act of fulfilling the scripture, living into the law, becoming the Body of Christ.
And when we do this we are no longer compelled to point fingers or judge others. Instead we hold out our hands and say, let us walk together, for we are the same body, the hands, the foot, the mind, the heart, the body of God.