Mini-Baptisms: Day 25 of Ramadan

 

On Saturday night, I was invited to iftar with a group from the Islamic Association of North Texas in Richardson.

I was also invited, for the first time, to participate in wudu, the Islamic practice of ablution, or washing one’s hands and feet before entering the prayer room.

Larry beckoned me to sit beside him on a stool in front of a faucet, and then walked me through the process. He showed me how to wash my hands, arms up to the elbow, mouth, face, ears, and feet.

This practice is based on a command from the Quran, which reads: “O ye who believe! when ye prepare for prayer, wash your faces, and your hands (and arms) to the elbows; Rub your heads (with water); and (wash) your feet to the ankles.” (Sura 5.6)

As he was demonstrating the proper way to wash, Larry, who is a convert to Islam from Christianity, chuckled and said, “It’s like a mini-baptism.”

I responded, “Yes, but we’re using a lot more water than we normally use in baptism!”

The practice of ablution is related to the concept of taking off one’s shoes, because it has to do with showing respect in a sacred space. But it goes deeper – it connotes the importance of coming before God with clean, pure hands, feet, and heart.

The prophet Mohammed is reported to have said, “Cleanliness is half of faith,” which sounds remarkably similar to the saying that Methodism’s founder, John Wesley coined: “Cleanliness is next to godliness.”

All forms of ablution are essentially symbolic – the washing of one’s body is meant to represent the cleansing of one’s heart and soul. Just because you go to prayer with sparkling clean hands doesn’t mean your heart is also pure. It’s meant instead to be a reminder before prayer to lay aside those things which might be a hindrance to the contemplation of God. As Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard famously put it, “purity of heart is to will one thing,” meaning that purity is really about focus, single-mindedness.

The religious pursuit of purity is not so much about being rid of dirt and sin, as it is about the embrace of God alone. In order to receive God’s merciful embrace, we must open our fists, dropping those things which we were clinging to, and reaching out for the eternal One. Purity is the crystalline, razor-sharp intention to let God, and God alone, fill one’s heart, mind, and soul.

As I washed my hands, face, and feet, I imagined that I was doing exactly this. As the drops of water rolled off my face, I pictured my preoccupations and prejudices rolling off my soul. As the stream of water splashed off my toes, I imagined the dust of the day’s petty concerns and worries flow down the drain.

When I entered the prayer room with Larry, I willed myself to will one thing – God’s own will. I prayed that God’s will would be done on the earth, but especially in my life.

Yes, it was a sort of mini-baptism. The symbolic meaning of baptism for Christians is that one’s sins are washed away, and that we are raised out of the water to new life. It’s meant as an initiation ritual primarily, and so we celebrate baptism as a one-time event only.

However, upon reflection, I am reminded that are precedents for mini-baptisms, or ablution, in Scripture and Christian tradition, especially in the surprising story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples.

In John 13, as the disciples gather for a meal, Jesus shocks the group by bending down to wash their feet for them. This was a task normally reserved for a servant, or another person of low status. But Jesus performed the rite himself.

When he was finished, he said, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” (John 13:14-15)

In this story, Jesus affirms the importance of purity and cleanliness before God, but then adds a surprising twist by performing the ablution himself for the disciples. This is an act of supreme sacrifice, of laying one’s own comfort and convenience aside for the other.

Then it struck me – to serve others is to do God’s will. The two are intimately related.

When we purify our hearts, when we pledge ourselves to the pursuit of God’s will, then we find ourselves being directed to serve others, to practice radical compassion, to empty ourselves for the good of God’s children.

May our mini-baptisms consistently direct us to serve others in God’s name.

Advertisements

17 comments

  1. Hashim Mohmand

    It was a pleasure having you with us for breaking the fast. Fantastic and thought provoking perspective on ablution. We need more people like you on both sides of the fence to bring our people together.

  2. ♥ natnat ♥

    I’ve mentioned this before but your post only reaffirms what I have believed for quite some time. See, when I attend Mass previously, there will be little chalices at the entrance to the Church filled with Holy Water, and worshippers dipped their fingers in the water and crossed themselves symbolically signifying purity before entering the House of the Lord. And as a Muslim, this only strengthens my faith and the similarity that binds us, the Abrahamic religions 🙂 It’s always a pleasure to read your blog Rev. Wes. Cheers from Singapore xoxo

  3. Lori Panu

    Insightful, Wes, and well written as always. You have such a great gift of expression which truly supports your message.

  4. Fasting in California

    In addition to the symbolism of ablution, I also think there is a health-related aspect to it, which surely God/Allah would encourage. If a Muslim is praying 5 times a day, and therefore washing 5 times a day, it helps cut down on internal disease and the further spread of it. (Also ask Larry about the bigger ablution/wudu which must be performed after sexual relations.) 🙂

  5. Sharmina

    I once attended a two-day seminar called “Prayer: Beyond the Motions” and in it, the lecturer gave us such a wonderful example of how to be more conscious of the true meaning behind ablution. He reminded us that the point of doing the ablution before praying was to help us wash away our distractions and focus.

    What he suggested we do as were performed each step was to remind ourselves of the actions performed by each part of our body. So when we wash our left hand, we ask Allah to forgive us for any sins we might have committed with our hands and when we wash our right hand to bless us for the good we’ve done with our hands. And then when we rinse our mouth – the bad/or good we might have said, and so on and so forth.

    I thought it was a nice way to gain God-consciousness or Taqwa.

  6. Kris

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It is refreshing that you are open-minded and not coming to the topic of Islam out of fear and hate. I am so used to disdain/ignorance/fear/distrust that it’s a shock in a great way to see your blog posts. Again, you are reminding me of so many important things.

  7. Meg Swaid

    You said:

    “All I’m asking of you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, is to show neighborly respect to Muslims. This is the day, this is the time, in which we must show our true colors as Christians.

    Love is our true color.”

    It might interest you to know that the word for “baptism” in the Quran actually means to ‘dye or change one’s color’. This is related to an order given by the prophet in the early days of Islam in which muslims were instructed to dye their beards red so as to be known from the others i.e. as “muslims”. I enjoy the way in which you really investigate the words of worship and prayer and I personally believe that although the vocabularies change, the practices should not (although some have like the reduction of ablutions in churches to fingerbowls in he entryways, no offense of course to Christians).

    You have such a great understanding of purity and to purify oneself in this post…and I will forever more look at that word ‘purify’ in the Quran a bit differently (which also exists and is frequently mentioned).

    Peace and almost done!

  8. Ansar

    Wes, thanks for sharing with all day after day as you make your journey with fasting with Muslims in this month of Ramadan.
    I have shared your link with my freinds and they have enjoyed reading your posts also.
    Every subject you take, including this ritual of wudu, has deep meaning and individuals are encouraged to try to understand why a certain ritual was commanded by the Creator.
    As Larry must have told you that Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) lived the Quran in his lifetime, so if one reads his traditions (The Sunnah) everything in the Quran is explained in it through his actions and speech, it is a code for everything in life one wants to find answers to – even when I go bathroom, there is a supplication recommended and proper way to do it.
    The night of the 27th was a big night for Muslims all over, as it is the night when the Quran was revealed, and most Muslims try to supplicate, offer prayers ask for forgiveness and for their needs from from the Creator.
    Thanks again for sharing
    Regards

  9. Kasia Gościej

    mashaAllah, such beautiful words, I wish there were more Christians treating Islam with so much reverence 🙂 I am deeply touched by all the posts regarding your Ramadan experience, you truly are a Hanif – one who maintains submission to God in its purest form.
    May Allah subhana wa ta’ala send His blessings upon you, ameen
    Khadija

    • Agnes

      This is just unbelievable, Kasia…You are writing about Christians and what they think about Islam. You were born Christian, raised in 100% Christian environment and culture, and suddenly at the age of 30 decided you were somebody else….This is extremely disturbing for all of us that love you to see how you are destroying yourself for several years already… We always had a great respect for Islam, which “Christians” do not? Sadly, I think you are soaked in too much anti-Christian propaganda.

  10. Pingback: American Pastor partakes in the holy month of Ramadan - Page 3
  11. dogman70

    I still don’t grasp the importance of the whole taking off your shoes before you enter the mosque. I am not really comfortable with it. About a year ago, maybe little more than that I went w/my wife to the mosque & at the end of the service my shoes had been stolen. No where to be found. I haven’t been back since, but not so much because of the stolen shoes, the entire service was in Malay and I don’t speak Malay and I was not expecting that so going to a Mosque in Singapore is pointless for me because I don’t know the language they give the sermons in.
    Thankfully my wife bought for me a Qu’ran that is an English translation,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s