The fifteenth day of the Islamic month of Sha’ban is the birthday of an eagerly Awaited Saviour, Imam Mohammad al-Mahdi, revered by Shia’ Muslims across the world as a wholesome bringer of justice and salvation to the whole of humanity. A direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad and the twelfth and last in a chain of righteous Imams. A man believed to have never died and to be in hiding till the time is ripe for his second and final manifestation. Sunni Muslims also believe in the Mahdi but he is conceived as somewhat differently from Imam al-Mahdi. Unlike him, this Sunni Mahdi is someone who will appear anew, for the first time, not for the second.
Christianity too longs for a returned Saviour. Jesus Christ, who ascended into Heaven after his Resurrection in the year 33 AD. Every time the sacrament of Holy Communion is celebrated in church, the faithful profess faith in Jesus’ return with the public invocation that ‘Christ will come again’ – at the end of time to judge the world. Similarly, Jews expect the coming of their llong-awaitedMessiah. Before that, many believe the Prophet Elijiah will also re-appear on the mountains to herald the coming of God’s Anointed.
Thus, monotheistic religions seem to share a common hankering for a Saviour to come. A figure who will restore the original, God-created harmony, presently distorted by sin and unjust power relations. It is fair to say, however, that not all Christians believe literally in Christ’s return. Sadly, not even all priests, who are ex-officio are supposed to teach it. ‘If you really believe in Christ’s Second Coming you must be mad!’ a trendy young priest boldly told me way back. (He was very liberal, and later left the priesthood.) Others similar to him take a cavalier attitude towards Biblical passages and interpret Christ’s return in merely allegorical or symbolic terms, emptying the concept of any real, full-bloodied application.
Rabbis also hold different views about the traditional expectation of their Messiah. Orthodox Jews must subscribe in full faith to the belief and some Hasidic Jews hold the view that their actions can hasten his coming. Instead, Reform Judaism has generally given up the belief, considering it irrelevant to the modern concerns and needs of their community. Still others emphasise the spiritual or social aspects of the messianic hope, as opposed to focusing on a definite person. Considering the numerous claimants – some rather unfortunate ones – to the title in Jewish history, one can perhaps appreciate Jewish caution in approaching the matter.
As an Anglican priest, I fully subscribe to the article in the Apostles’ Creed that proclaims that Christ will come from Heaven ‘to judge the living and the dead’. But I also understand the worries of many sincere Christians. The danger is that by concentrating so much on future expectations – on the Redeemer to come – one may succumb to fatalism and neglect the pressing obligations of the present. Awaiting Christ’s return should in no way detract from engagement in the real world here and now. The bloodless battle for justice and against evil is fought daily by pious people who follow the teachings and example of Christ and his Church. Indeed, the theological tenet that the Church is the Body of Christ on earth conveys vividly the notion that Christ is not far away but present and active in the Church and in all those who trust in his saving power.
Jews of course reject the idea that Jesus of Nazareth was their awaited Messiah. (The word ‘Christ’ simply means ‘Messiah’, the Anointed of God, in the Greek language. It is a title, not a proper name.) Muslims, by contrast, do believe in Jesus – ‘Isa’ in the Arabic of the Qur’an. As a Prophet of God, not as divine. The Qur’an is indeed full of information about Jesus and his mother Mary. From the eschatological and interfaith points of view, the relation in which the Muslim Jesus stands to Imam al-Mahdi is interesting. According to Professor Wilferd Madelung, the Shia’ position seems to be that at the al-Akhira – the Hour or prelude to the Day of Judgment – the Mahdi will lead the prayers of the faithful and Jesus will pray behind him. Although Jesus’ rank is that of a Prophet of God, he is not, like the Mahdi, a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. Hence at the time of the Hour his subordination to Imam al-Mahdi appears logical enough.
In the secular West the idea of an infallible being who ushers in a time both of judgment and redemption is relegated to myth and legend. Actually, secularists and atheists often ardently believe in their own, all too fallible pseudo bringers of ‘salvation’, from Lenin and Stalin to Mao and Che Guevara. The question is: why do people, in different traditions and cultures and regardless of ideological or religious doctrines, look forward to a saviour, or saviour-like person? Is it not because this world is so ridden with man-made evils? Such as oppression of the poor, social injustices, cruel and criminal wars of aggression, denial of the self-determination of peoples, attacks on transcendence, the spiritual dimension of humanity. Until these shocking human wrongs are remedied and their cause is removed at the root, people will justifiably long for a Saviour, a Christ, a Mahdi, an Awaited One.