Introductory address at the Interfaith Iftar c0-hosted by the Diocese of Parramatta and the Columban Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations on Wednesday 20 April 2022 at Novotel, Parramatta.

Ramadan is a wonderful time of grace. According to a hadith, a saying of the Prophet Muhammad (s):

إِذَا جَاءَ رَمَضَانُ
فُتِّحَتْ أَبْوَابُ الْجَنَّةِ
وَغُلِّقَتْ أَبْوَابُ النَّارِ
وَصُفِّدَتِ الشَّيَاطِينُ.

When there comes the month of Ramadan,
the doors of heaven are opened;
the doors of Hellfire are closed;
and the devils are chained.

Such is indeed a propitious time. However, a similar Islamic account of God’s abundant bounty almost killed me!  Many years ago in Pakistan, I was weaving my motorbike through the traffic of Lahore, dodging motorbikes, cars, buses, trucks, rickshaws, bicycles, pedestrians, horse-drawn tongas, and the occasional camel-cart, all of which claimed the right of way.  I was thinking about my homily for the following Sunday.  The text was from Matthew’s Gospel:

 Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Mt 7:13-14)

As I was thinking about the “narrow gate”, a hadith came to my mind, with the prayer that is said on entering a mosque, the prayer that is often inscribed above the door of the mosque:

اللَّهُمَّ افْتَحْ لِي أَبْوَابَ رَحْمَتِكَ

Allahumma iftah lī abwāba rahmati-ka

O God, open to me the gates of Your mercy.[2]

And as I thought about that plural—not the narrow single “door” of Your mercy, but the plural wide-open “doors” of Your mercy—I felt the superabundance of God’s mercy, and tears started streaming down my face.  And that is how Islamic sentiment nearly killed me – when you are dodging through Lahore traffic, you can’t afford for your eyes to become blurred with tears!

Does that mean that Islam is more generous in dispensing God’s mercy than Christianity? Not at all!  Just this past weekend, Christians commemorated the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Muslims cannot accept that Jesus died on a cross, for it would be a failure of one of God’s prophets.  For Christians, the cross is not failure, but the necessary way which opens to the “success” of resurrection.

More to my point, Jesus stretching out his arms on the cross is God’s universal embrace of all people and all creation. The Gospel states that at the moment of his death, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mt 27:51, see also Mk 15:38). This is a symbolic way of declaring that in Jesus, God is not concealed in one place, for one tribe, or one people, but is open to all nations.

Even more dramatically, the Apostles’ Creed states, “He descended into hell”. As God is the author of life, and death the antithesis of life, all who died were considered consigned to hell.  Jesus “descended into hell” to open the doors of hell, not to let souls in, but to release all the dead who were imprisoned there since the beginning of human history. Thus, the risen Jesus is Lord of the living and the dead. In Christianity too, God’s mercy is superabundant.

It is perhaps ironic that Islam, which insists on tawhid, the oneness of God, also insists on the multiplicity of doors to God’s mercy; and Christianity, which confesses the Trinity, three Persons in the one God, insists on the oneness of the door to salvation (c.f. Jn 10:1-10) – but that one door is universal and open to all.

The medium in each case is different, but the message of Islam and Christianity is the same.  God’s mercy is abundantly available to all, freely given, freely poured out.  We Christians and Muslims, therefore, must show mercy to one another, and to all others, for we are all sisters and brothers.

That is the common message of Ramadan and Easter.

[1] Variation in Sunan an-Nasa’I 2099, Sahih Bukhari 1800, 3277

[2] Hadith 772, Book 6. Sunah Ibn Majah, Sahih