When people around here want to help non-Muslims understand the emotional magnitude of Ramadan in Islam, they often compare it to Christmas. These two seasons are believed to be characterized by goodwill, feasting and an overall elevation of personal mood and perhaps even piety. If we wanted to be cynical, we could point out that both seasons are additionally marked by increased anxiety, displays of wanton consumerism and regrettable weight-gain. If we wanted to appear a somewhat intellectual, we might point out that both seasons mark the coming of the Word of God into the world. In Islam, Ramadan is the month in which Allah is said to have given the Qu’ran to Mohammed, while Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus, whom John refers to as the Logos-the Word. Despite these apparent similarities, there is a profound difference which bears noting.
Ramadan is a time of elevated personal (and communal) piety. As one Muslim woman was quoted to say in a local paper, “Ramadan is when God gives us all a chance to cleanse our souls.” Yes, a chance. Muslims seize that chance by abstaining from food, drink, smoking and sex from sunrise until sunset every day of the month. Additional acts of piety which are purported to earn Allah’s favor, blessing and forgiveness are special prayers, charity, memorizing the Qu’ran and an all night vigil toward the end of the month. Performed properly, these pious acts could earn Allah’s forgiveness. Could. No Muslim I know would ever say (to me) that they are certain that they’ve been forgiven. To do so would be presumptuous and impious. Instead, all they can do is perform the rituals as best as they can and take what comes. Certainly, there is a similar line of thought in historical Christianity. However, this fatalism never rears its head in connection to Christmas.
Christmas is characterized as a season of hope. When the angel announced to the shepherds that the Messiah was born, he announced the arrival of what Israel had been hoping for. They had been hoping for a King who would do God’s will on Earth as it is in Heaven. When Mary and Joseph took their baby boy to the temple in Jerusalem, the prophet Simeon told them that Jesus was the “light to the nations.” As King, Jesus was the One in whom the non-Jews would hope. So both Jews and non-Jews hope for God’s King to set the world right which is what Jesus came to do. And part of that task is securing the forgiveness of sins.
Allah does not promise to forgive sins. He gives you a chance at forgiveness, but he doesn’t confirm it. God not only promises to forgive sins, He comes into the world in Jesus to secure forgiveness and then gives us two signs/symbols as evidence of it. First, He gives the physical act of baptism. Second He gives the spiritual action of the indwelling Holy Spirit. These two serve as witness and guarantee that our sins are forgiven and that we are/will be part of the world-set-right when King Jesus returns to Earth.
In this way, the month of Ramadan and the Christmas season are radically and profoundly different. The former is a time of increased striving at a chance with an uncertain outcome. The later is a time of celebration of the One who strove on our behalf in order to guarantee the result.
God, grant that we will be grateful and not arrogant as a result of this great difference.