The content and opinions expressed in this blog are mine. They do not represent the US Government or US Peace Corps - Jud Dolphin

Sunday, January 3

O Holy Night...Part II

Our Holy Night pilgrimage continues inside St Antoine's.

The pews are only partially filled. I lead the way and we take a seat a little less than half from the front. Then remembering my parents, my mind is flooded with memories. Every Sunday at the Presbyterian Church, they sat on the right hand side and a little less than half way from the front. So here I am in Istanbul replicating it 60 years later.

We do not know the worship schedule and wonder if the mass will be sparsely attended. The choir is up front and appears to be practicing songs. I notice that it's a multi-racial choir. Africans, Asians and Turks are all noticeable. They sing several beautiful melodies, yet unknown to our American ears.

Then they begin to sing O Holy Night. In this far off land this familiar sound floods my mind again. I lean over to Fran and say, "My mother use to play that song on the piano in our living room." Fran smiles and says, "I was just thinking the same thing. It was my mother's favorite too."

I sit listening and imaging all the places where this song is being played and heard tonight and every Christmas Eve. My eyes settle on the pulpit and I imagine Pope John XXIII preaching a Christmas message.

Christianity in Turkey has deep roots.

Emperor Constantine Christianized an empire here. Early creeds were formulated in the Hagia Sofia before the Church split in two - Roman and Eastern Orthodox. Crusaders came and went. Islam prevailed through centuries of the Ottoman Empire. Then in the 20th century, the Republic brought tolerance and Christianity found itself in a crowded Bazaar of faiths. Islam, Judaism, Secularism, Christianity and more contending with one another.

Would Pope John's years in Istanbul result in a faith with a siege mentality or would there be a generous openness to new ideas? Having just spent the afternoon at the Grand Bazaar, I know you can either fight the flow or move along expecting the unexpected.

I imagine Pope John teaching about the unexpected birth of a savior. I think of him trusting God to spread love of one another. I think of a grand bazaar of faiths adding understanding to the human experience. I don't know if Pope John XXIII said such things. Maybe I can find where his words are kept alive on the Internet.

Meanwhile the Church is filling up. Pew seats are no longer available. Rings of people are crowding into the aisles. Some are taking pictures and many are chatting on mobile phones. Humanity from the boulevards of Taksim Square is being drawn in. Spilling into this place, the buzz of energy grows louder. It seems some what surreal.

Then unexpectedly (at least to me) a television crew shows up along with a photo journalist. Aggressively, they push down the center aisle. The photo journalist takes pictures of the pulpit...the choir....worshipers...while the TV crew pans the front and captures the growing crowd...digitally.

I have never seen a Christmas Eve service covered as if it was a news event. But then again, maybe, it should be. Isn't it a better way to think about this holy night than the usual one all wrapped up in store-bought excess? I wonder how will they spin the story?

Alarmed ushers lasso the TV crew and photo journalist escorting them to the back of the room. They resist. They are not happy. I get the image of bouncers at a night club. The atmosphere is more charged than any prim and proper worship service that I have ever attended. I surprise myself. I like it.

The choir begins to sing in earnest now. Beautiful melodies. Are they Filipino words? I am not sure. A group of African men gather in the corner by the pulpit. Drums beat. Rhythmic chants are sung and shouted. The crowded sanctuary is captivated. At least six rows of humanity encircle the pews now. People put away mobile phones and listen. A carol is adapted to African drums.

O come all ye faithful...boom....boom...boom. Joyful and triumphant...boom...boom, O come ye...boom. O come ye...boom
to Bethlehem...boom...boom...boom."

The old and familiar is unexpectedly new and exciting.

Next to Fran is a young woman. Her name is Fatama. After some conversation about the Peace Corps and how it emphasizes cross cultural sharing, we learn that she is Muslim.

She is very engaging and explains that she is a practicing Muslim even though she is dressed in western fashion. I am learning that Islam has many forms and is much broader than the caricatures portrayed in western media.

Fran, always the inquisitive historian, asks the question we all are wondering. "How does a young Muslim woman come to a Christian Church on Christmas Eve?"

The young woman smiles and says,"Istanbul is my home. Islam is my faith. And the faiths and cultures of the world are my interests and passions. I wanted to pay my respects."

In a strange way her words are a Christmas blessing. I think if her thoughts can be shared over and over again, maybe, there is hope for this tired world.

I look up at the pulpit and find myself saying, "Pope John XXIII, Your words, your faith are still alive here." A captivated crowd. Fillapino melodies. African drum beats. TV news casters. Muslim passion and respect. All mixed together.

Expect the unexpected. O Holy Night...It's Christmas in Istanbul.

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