(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, December 20, 2014)
ISTANBUL, TURKEY ✦ It was a Sunday, the first day of Advent, en route from Hamilton to my African home, when I toured the Old City here, a place where religions and cultures and empires have collided for centuries. This is when my guide for the day said what he did.
I had asked him about some historic notes and holy relics in the Topkapi Palace Museum, items identified as thousands of years old from ancient Israel, but looking dubiously more modern and Ottoman-like, when he told me as plainly as if he was giving the weather report that, “It’s all mythology anyway. Whatever you believe is true, that’s the truth.”
I suppose he just wanted to get through the afternoon — it was raining miserably — but my guide’s remark is still a depressing reminder that there’s always a lazy approach to truth, if not peace, and enough people are always willing to try it. As if I’m now sitting in a red chair if I just believe hard enough that it’s red, even though it’s, in fact, very black.
Now we’re in the last days of Advent, a word that means “waiting,” before much of the world celebrates Christ’s birth, a fantastic story of its own: this miracle child born in a stable of sorts, sheep and scruffy shepherds nearby, the virgin mother, the angels singing, and all the other unlikely drama.
Which is to say that it’s fair to ask, can this account of the first Christmas pass the muster of historic veracity — I believe it can — and also speak in a more timeless, fairy-tale-like way even 2000 years later? Not with any fabrication, but in a way that simply makes us wide-eyed like children who stand before the gifts under the tree on Christmas morning.
Did God really visit? Really? He came? To us? For us? Literally in the flesh? Naked and helpless? Like us? You, God, here, to this dirty little planet? For anyone? Can it really be true? God, are you really true?
Maybe all we can manage some days is to ask with fingers crossed behind our back or sucking back tears with a lump in the throat. This is how it goes in our most honest moments, and if this season of waiting and then gift-giving means anything it means that we should never be afraid to ask.
Pope Francis said as much — inquire honestly — when he was also in Istanbul on this year’s first day of Advent to encourage clear thinking and interfaith dialogue, for people with differences to come together during increasingly difficult days.
Constantinople, as Istanbul was once known, was the centre of Orthodox Christianity before the Ottomans conquered it in the 15th century. Since 98 per cent of Turkey’s 80 million people are now Muslim, the Pope’s visit was highly symbolic.
It resonated all the more because Turkey borders Iraq and Syria, where Christians are now being widely persecuted and killed by jihadists such as ISIL. This made Francis’s message a plea for human life as much as anything, a warning of the unimaginable. “We can’t resign ourselves to a Middle East without Christians.”
The day before my guide’s remarkable comment on truth, or lack of, I stood within viewing distance of the Pope at the renowned Hagia Sophia, Greek for “Holy Wisdom,” the world’s largest cathedral for nearly 1,000 years before it was a mosque for 400, and now a museum.
Later, Francis made his joint statement with Bartholomew I, the head of the world’s 250-million member Orthodox Church, which is still, in another symbolic footnote, seated in Istanbul.
This is how life runs in this region. Stories and histories cross and collide while the world waits. It waits for hope. It waits for peace on earth and good will toward all men, good will to all people of any religion or creed, or of no religion or creed at all.
As so many people now prepare to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, the world also waits with a terrible dearth of peace. This is the paradox.
Just like it’s a paradox that the darker the night, the brighter the Light of the World.