The holidays have always been a time of togetherness and feasting for my family. When crispness enters the air, bringing relief from the stifling Georgia summer, my mind turns to standing in my mom’s kitchen and making noodles or pound cake, pulling out the card table to make room for everyone in the kitchen.
The year my husband and I found ourselves living in a land that was still new to us when the holidays rolled around, we had none of the familiar traditions to anchor us to the season of feasting and family.
Our family was celebrating together over 6,000 miles away. Fall for us in the Middle East was marked by one uncommon rainfall, not falling leaves. We spent Thanksgiving with a group of internationals, eating turkey alongside stuffed grape leaves, the familiar next to the new. There was food and laughter, but it didn’t feel like a feast.
Homesickness settled in over my soul in the middle of the holiday season, pictures from home brought reminders of all I was missing out on. The poinsettia and little Charlie Brown tree in the corner were the only evidence of an approaching Christmas until an amazing thing happened.
Twinkling lights started adorning the buildings next to us and lanterns were strung between balconies. Candies and dates piled up in the produce section of the little grocery store and makeshift stables were erected in the streets outside our flat.
The Muslim holidays occur at different times each year following the lunar Islamic calendar. Eid-al-Adha, the cause of all of the decorations and excitement, happened to fall only a few days before our Christmas that year.
Eid is “the Feast of the Sacrifice,” the biggest feast of the Muslim year. It marks the willingness of Abraham to offer up his son as a sacrifice before God intervened with a ram in the thicket. The Quranic version of Abraham’s story is markedly different from the biblical account, but the heart of the story is the same–God provided a sacrifice.
I started inquiring about the upcoming celebration as I saw sheep, goats, and cows begin to line the streets. I found out families acquire an animal to sacrifice in remembrance of the ram provided to Abraham. The meat of the sacrificed animal is divided into three parts. The family keeps one portion for their celebration, part is given to friends and neighbors, and the last portion is kept aside for the poor.
Excitement filled the air as the feast approached and we were honored to be invited by our landlady, who had become a close friend, to enjoy a meal with her that day.
The morning of Eid felt a bit like Christmas, with children playing with their presents in the streets and people making their way to family member’s homes. The scene on the street, however, was unlike any holiday preparation I’d ever experienced. We stood at our fourth story window and watched as the animals in stalls that had been erected throughout the week were marched off to slaughter.
My curiosity turned to amazement as we watched blood run red down the alleyways. I couldn’t look away though and watched as one of the sheep was removed from the pen. The goats and cows bleated and screamed, but the sheep didn’t make a sound. There was no kicking or fighting back. Silently, the sheep kicked a few times and gave up his life.
I realized tears were streaming down my face, not for the animal but for what the animal represented. The words of the prophet Isaiah echoed in my mind … “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.”
Here on this day that felt like Christmas, the day we celebrate the coming of our Savior, I watched a perfect picture of why that Savior came to this broken earth. These sacrifices made in the streets were just one of millions of attempts of people to atone, to make right all the wrong in the world.
But it has already been made right by the Lamb that takes away the sins of the world.
We sat hours later, crowded around a little table in the dining room of our friend eating kibda, the liver of one of those recently slaughtered cows. I stood in the tiny kitchen helping prepare the modest meal, and we laughed together over dates and rice and many cups of tea.
A knock came at the window, and I understood few words of the exchange in Arabic, but I knew exactly what was happening as a bag of meat was passed between hands and the beggar at the window received the portion reserved for him. He would get to join our feast as well.
The day looked nothing like what I had grown to expect a holiday to look like, but it looked exactly like what a feast should be–sacrifice and sharing, celebration and community. Most of all, it was marked for me by what every one of our days should be marked with–remembering the ultimate sacrifice that changes each our lives, feast or famine, in the Middle East or America.
Oh, that every day would be the Feast of the Sacrifice in my life!