…and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
Salaam and grace to you from Jerusalem, the city of the Cross and the Resurrection.
From the heart of Jerusalem, the center of the spiritual world, we celebrate Easter with amazement and awe. We are like those who saw Jesus entering the city on Palm Sunday, wondering how this new event will change our circumstances and enhance our understanding of God’s relationship with us. We have seen many changes in the world as of late. Earlier this month, a new Pope, Francis I, was elected by the papal conclave. A new Archbishop of Canterbury was installed in the Anglican Church. In addition, we in Jerusalem have experienced the visit of President Barack Obama. All are wondering what these events mean for us in terms of a peaceful resolution to a decades-old conflict. Some have high hopes, and some are disappointed, and others are indifferent. Even if we have the hope of the resurrection in our hearts, we also see the growing frustration and restlessness of our neighbors. And we wonder how long it will be before God’s peace will reign in its fullness in the Middle East.
As some of you may have read in the news, both Egypt and southern portions of the Holy Land have seen a recent horde of locusts, just like the plague of Exodus prior to the Israelites’ departure from their enslavement. I think there is a direct correlation between the message of Christ’s resurrection and the Exodus from Egypt. I think there is the possibility of a new freedom for those who have suffered under the yoke of oppression, but frankly, I am concerned how this new freedom may come about. The whole Middle East is now boiling. We watch and pray as we see civil war in Syria, Sudan, Tunisia, Iraq, and other places. We watch especially as the civil war in Syria claims the lives of too many innocent victims. We pray that this conflict does not engulf us. We pray for the thousands of victims of violence—men, women, children, and those whose homes have been demolished. We pray especially for refugees who, as I write, are living in tents in the Jordanian wilderness, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey, dependent upon the church and other organizations for their very survival.
According to Palestinian folklore, a cloud of locusts is a portent of war. I pray this is not so here in our land. But I wonder if the locusts are a portent of something else perhaps? Are we entering into a period of more confusion? President Obama has now left the country. People who applaud him are asking: will peace based on justice come? He gave well-prepared speeches and he often appealed to people’s hopes and dreams for a better future. This country and the whole Middle East needs more than speeches. We want to see the fruits of justice and peace for the sake of our children on all sides of the conflicts. We want to see civil war, hatred, extremism and occupation come to an end. We want to live normal lives like other free nations. We had hoped that President Obama would have heard this deep yearning for peace based on justice from the Palestinian Christians, who are an integral part of their society and work to implement the same values of liberty, democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and gender equality.
The Jewish people are celebrating Passover this week. And as they were once delivered from the pharaoh, the Middle East now needs to be delivered from political games and twisted ideologies. The Middle East needs to be delivered from occupation and oppression. We need to be delivered from the sickness of racial hegemony that is so pervasive throughout the world. We need to be delivered from ethnic and religious disenfranchisement, so that all may know the power of the resurrection and live peacefully with their neighbors.
Do we give in to despair? Do we give up? Do we emigrate to lands abroad? The narrative of Easter, the power of the cross and resurrection is the only source of our hope. On the Via Dolorosa, Jesus encountered all the dark forces that we experience in the Middle East today. He sacrificed himself so that we might hope and we can trust his power. We will not allow extremism, oppression, violence, bloodshed, hatred, walls or confiscated lands to diminish our hope, to make us give in to despair. The hope of living with dignity, justice, and reconciliation will triumph over the dark forces we face. This is the power of the cross today. This is the hope of Christians in Jerusalem and the whole Holy Land. This is the task of the Church universal, to work with love and tenderness to protect life and the human rights of every nation. As long as the church of Christ in every land, especially in the Holy Land, claims this responsibility within the spirit of Easter, I will be filled with hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Jesus tells us in John 3:14-15 that “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up so that whoever believes in him will have eternal life.” The Israelites in the story of Exodus looked to the serpent on the pole in order to find healing. So we too look to Christ lifted on the cross as the source of our healing and liberation. We look to Christ who lived with and offered himself for the poor and suffering so that we might fully understand when he tells us “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
And it is this promise of eternal life that we celebrate here in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday. We sing, process in the streets, lift high the cross, and rejoice in the empty tomb. And I ask you to join us as we strive to celebrate the resurrection not only at Easter, but every day of our lives, so that the promise of the resurrection, the liberating power of Christ’s love for us as shown on the cross, might be made manifest in the world.
When I think of the “great cloud of witnesses” cheering, upholding, and carrying the Arab and Middle East Christians in their hearts, I have hope. My hope is not with those who merely talk about peace, but rather with those who are makers of peace. In the final analysis, the empty tomb is the most assured hope there is. It reminds us of the Risen Lord who will come again to liberate us and bring healing to this broken world. As it is written in Romans 5:5 “…and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Again, it is written in Psalm 46: “God is our strength, a very present help in trouble. We will not fear, though the earth be moved.” We will not fear, but rather, we will cling to hope, look to the cross, and work to realize Christ’s vision of a just peace with reconciliation.
In his inaugural sermon, Pope Francis I emphasized that the church is called to be custos, the protectors of creation with all the tenderness that Joseph showed Mary when he took her to be his wife (cf. Matthew 1:24). Pope Francis writes:
St. Paul speaks of Abraham, who, ‘hoping against hope, believed.’ (Romans 4:18). Hoping against hope! Today too, amid so much darkness, we need to see the light of hope and to be men and women who bring hope to others. To protect creation, to protect every man and every woman, to look upon them with tenderness and love, is to open up a horizon of hope; it is to let a shaft of light break through the heavy clouds; it is to bring the warmth of hope!
I fully agree with His Holiness and with our reformer Dr. Martin Luther who said: “The cross teaches us to believe in hope even when there is no hope”.. One manner in which we choose to exercise our belief in the power of hope is through the publication of “Victims of Our Own Narratives: Portrayal of the Other in Israeli and Palestinian School Books.” This textbook analysis was sponsored by the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land (of which the ELCJHL is a member). Using the latest empirical methods, we discerned the manner in which the books we are handing to our children are shaping their attitudes and comprehension of those around them. The results of the study indicate that there are two conflicting narratives between Palestinians and Israelis, and the values of coexistence are lacking. How can we hope for our children to live in peace if we do not plant seeds of hope in them when they are young?
It is our duty in Easter, even while living in difficult circumstances, to see the other as Christ sees them. I call upon all responsible in Palestine and Israel to take the results of this study for the sake of our children to work toward a just and peaceful resolution. After the politicians make speeches and sign their proclamations, it is ultimately the responsibility of pastors, rabbis, imams, teachers, and parents to help children see the image of God in each other and live in the spirit of Christ’s love. I call on religious leaders of all three Abrahamic faiths to work for this hope so that religion will become the source of a hope-full solution by teaching our children how to live with each other in harmony, peace, and equality. We are called to be witnesses even in times of oppression and occupation—this is the prophetic role of religion that Easter cultivates in us. It is my hope that through the results of studies such as these that we can begin to correct long-held prejudices against people of different socio-ethnic backgrounds, in order that the power of Christ’s resurrection might be made fully known in the Holy Land.
Our “hope against hope” comes from the empty tomb in Jerusalem. People in our region have lost hope. They see that there are talks and gestures, but no change for the better. Our hearts are heavy without hope. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is no longer the primary concern of those who work for peace in the Middle East. Peace, reconciliation, and justice are overshadowed by wars and rumors of wars. Political and religious extremism are becoming normative. Ethnic and sectarian conflicts are proliferating. Those who believe in peace built on justice, reconciliation based on forgiveness, are becoming a small minority in their societies. All this causes us to ponder—are we living now in the long dark Good Friday?
Isaiah says that people who are walking the darkness will see a great light. Isn’t this the message of Easter? All people should have hope. All people should look for light even in the darkness. Resurrection must reinvigorate in us the real hope. We are called to be witnesses of hope through our steadfastness and faithfulness to the word of God. We should implant this hope in our children through dialogue and diakonia for societal recognition of our interdependency. This is the message of Easter—the most valuable thing we share on this planet is each other. The tomb is empty because Christ was worthy to show us a sacrificial love that elevates us beyond mere survival and into the plenitude of God’s reign because he wanted us to have life, and have it abundantly. We refuse to be victims. We refuse to have a minority mentality. Instead, we celebrate Easter as our ancestors did before us here in Jerusalem—with an awe and wonder of how God can take that which was dead and bring it to life. Hopelessness turns to hope, chaos is brought to order. Oppression is abolished, and those who once were in darkness now know the freedom of the light. Filled with the hope of the resurrection, we share with you the Easter greeting which started here in Jerusalem:
Al Masih Qam! Haqan Qam!
Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!
Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!
Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!
المسيح قام حقاً قام
كل عام وأنتم وعائلاتكم بألف خير
Bishop Dr. Munib Younan