Lent is once again upon us. For Christians, Catholics especially, these six weeks are a time for prayer and penance, a period of quiet spiritual reflection in anticipation of the joyous celebration of Easter and the renewed sense of optimism that spring inevitably brings. For many of us, however, it feels as though the Lenten season of 2020 never ended, coinciding as it did almost exactly with the initial outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, which then thrust us into an ascetic existence of sacrifice and deprivation that has lasted for over a year now. Yes, the Covid vaccine offers the promise of salvation, but we must be cautious about premature expectations of resurrecting life as we once knew it, particularly since some versions of that life may no longer be possible, or even preferred. Time has a way of a way of distorting memories of the good ole’ days.
Pope Francis spent part of this third week of Lent in Iraq on a mission to forge closer bonds between the Catholic Church and the Muslim world and to support the remaining Christian and Jewish minorities, in fact all minorities, left in the population. He met with civil and religious leaders, gave speeches and interviews, offered Mass with the faithful, and generally made an unabashed plea for peace and brotherly love in a country that has been torn by religious, ethnic, and sectarian strife for decades. The biblical and emotional symbolism of his visit at this time and in this place was inescapable: Ur in Souther Iraq is believed to have been the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, the common patriarch of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths; this year, the holy days of Passover begin on March 27, Lent culminates in Easter on April 4, and the holy month of Ramadan starts on April 12.
Iraq, located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, was known in ancient times as Mesopotamia. This was where the wheel was invented in the Bronze Age, where cuneiform writing and the legal Code of Hammaruabi were developed, and where the wondrous Hanging Gardens of Babylon were built. The city of Ur, founded by the Sumerians about 3500 BCE, became THE commercial trading center of the ancient world and was a sophisticated metropolis of affluent citizens using modern irrigation systems and burning oil for energy. Science, medicine, business, literature and architecture flourished here. The Ziggurat Temple in Ur, a World Heritage site (pictured above), is said to have been an early precursor of the step pyramid at Djoser, which is the oldest pyramid in Egypt (built in 2670 BCE).
No other nation except Israel has more biblical history and prophecy associated with it than Iraq. From the Garden of Eden, to Noah and the flood, to the Tower of Babel, to Daniel in the lion’s den, archeological support for familiar Old Testament stories continue to be unearthed and identified by modern scholars. No wonder Iraq is often called the Cradle of Civilization, an acknowledgment Pope Francis obviously shares. “This blessed place brings us back to our origins,” he said when he arrived. “We seem to have come home.” (“Pope Meets With Iraqi Cleric…,” Horowitz and Arraf, The New York Times, 3/7/21.)
Over the years as I have been fortunate to visit Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and Turkey, I have to admit that I, too, always felt as though I was “coming home” to the familiar, to the reality of those biblical stories in the Old and New Testament that I have been reading and hearing forever. What those Holy Land tour brochures promise really is true: history, certainly our shared history of Western civilization, does actually come alive when you experience these places first-hand. I am magnetically drawn to this part of the world and I still have personal hopes of completing my own tour of the Fertile Crescent in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq one day.
Unfortunately, a whole generation of younger people know Iraq only as the site of an endless war based on a false premise that began in March, 2003. The 17 years of US involvement there, which has cost us thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, has hardly made the country enticing to visitors, and the continuing sectarian violence and on-going humanitarian crisis created by the displacement of over 9 million people in the region does little to encourage an appreciation for the storied history of a great culture. Which is too bad.
And which is why the Pope’s visit to Iraq has an even greater message than just an ecumenical one from the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics to religious leaders in the Muslim world. He didn’t go there to placate anyone, much less convert anyone; rather, he was there to preach unity, humanity, and mutual respect, which have become the hallmarks of his papacy. As arguably the most influential non-governmental leader in the world, his presence bears witness to the suffering and persecution of all minorities, “the others” in every society, and confirms his solidarity with all of God’s people, of every caste, every nation, and every god. It is worth noting that a highlight of his visit was his meeting the Shiite Ayotollah Sistani who, like Francis, believes that religion should not govern a state (as it does in Iran under the Shia Ayotollah Ali Khomenei).
As Americans anticipate a release from the travails of the coronavirus, we would do well to revisit our memories of the old normal and reflect on the past injustices, hostilities and persecutions of “the others” in our own society. What have we learned from our year-long Lent of forced reflection? Do we really want to return to the “old normal” of bickering and bullying and hatred of anyone who differs in political opinion, race, class, religion, gender, region, nationality, of the toxic divisions that have almost done us in?
Time has a way of distorting the memory of the good ole’ days. Maybe the Pope could make a visit to America to remind us of that.