Rita Henley Jensen

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–The holiday concert I attend each year tells the Nativity story through Medieval and Renaissance music. The program includes the “Lament of Rachel,” the aria of an archetypical Jewish mother whose male infant was slaughtered by order of King Herod, an insecure monarch determined to eliminate the threat of a Bethlehem-born child perhaps destined to rid Israel of its foreign rulers.

Throughout her aria, Rachel is consoled byothers who tell her not to weep, for her son “hath gained his place in heaven.”

As Rachel weeps, so does the audience, even as each member struggles so find the idea or belief that could offer similar solace. This year, turning away from the power of what I was seeing, and the ache from being aware of its contemporary echoes, I glanced at the others filling the apse in the Cloisters museum in New York and noticed a nun dressed in a religious habit entranced by Rachel’s song. For the first time, I noticed how similar a nun’s habit is to the veiled costumes worn by many Muslim women.

Even though I was raised in an intensely Roman Catholic home, seeking out what religions have in common has been an interest of mine at least since I was 14. It was then that I bought a paperback “The Five Great Religions of the World” off a rotating wire stand at Nicklaus’ Drug Store in Worthington, Ohio, located just across the street from St. Michael’s parish, the center of my elementary and religious education.

I was stunned to learn then that religions I knew nothing of–at the time, it was a mortal sin for a Catholic to enter even another type of Christian church–often shared many similar narratives, a Noah’s Ark, for example. And each had a list of rules that seemed remarkably similar to the Ten Commandments. My faith shaken loose from the one, true, apostolic church, as Catholicism was described to me by the priests and nuns who taught me, I have since settled on a deep respect for those beliefs that advance altruism (e.g., Thou Shall Not Kill) and a guarded reverence for related religious spirituality and ritual (the “Peace Be with You” part of the Catholic mass).

Ramadan and Advent Have Similarities

This year, spent recovering from 9/11 and watching terrorism and religious-ethnic violence threaten to engulf the United States, all of the Middle East, Pakistan and India and even Indonesia, I again asked myself: What then do we practitioners of religious faith all have in common?

I noticed, again for the first time, that the Fast of Ramadan lasts 30 days and the Catholic’s Advent period of fasting and sacrifice is observed for the four weeks before Christmas; that stars, lights and gift-giving are central to celebrating Christmas and Hanukah (although the latter stresses the spiritual meaning of the celebration to a much greater extent).

And what could all of this have to do with the fact that my grandson, like many 4-year-olds in the United States, made his construction-paper chain and proudly placed it on his family’s Christmas tree, solemnly warning his little sister not to touch it?

As I considered all this, I stumbled over the word “hope.” That is the core here, I thought. That is what Christmas and the other religious holidays are all about–the celebration of hope–whether it be for a dinosaur video game, for physical safety or eternal life. My grandson is hoping Santa Claus will bring him the toys he wants. All the adults are feeding his hope with white lies and secret hiding places for gifts.

May There Never Be Another Rachel–Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist

Hope is a word I shy away from. I once attended a conference on domestic violence and one of the speakers pronounced with an air of authority that hope was the battered women’s drug. I, a former battered woman and welfare mother, proud that I never developed an addiction to tobacco, alcohol or any other chemical substance, felt the pain of self-recognition: I was high for years on “If I Do the Right Thing, He Will Love Me Enough to Stop Hitting Me” and “If I Say This Really Perceptive Thing, He Will Stop.”

I vowed that day to drop the hope habit and face reality dead on–to stop believing the white lies and reveal the secrets that had left me dependent on hope.

Still, I find myself hoping that the new majority leader of the U.S. Senate, William Frist, who supports stem-cell research, along with the new pro-choice senator from Alaska, Lisa Murkowski, will tip the balance in the U.S. Senate ever so slightly to the benefit of women’s autonomy here and abroad.

And I continue to hope that the rights of women will be enshrined in the new Afghanistan constitution and that the women of Iran will triumph in the rapidly changing political climate there.

Most of all, I continue to hope there will never be another Rachel–Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist.

And I acknowledge that hope may be a wish fed by white lies and secrets. It might be a drug supplying the blessings of denial.

Yet, I embrace it still. For without it, those of us who continue to push for improvements in women’s lives are defeated.

I wish you a hopeful holiday season and a hope-filled new year.

–Rita Henley Jensen is the editor in chief of Women’s Enews

For more information:

The Cloisters:

BBC World Service Guide to Religions of the World: