Tag Archives: Easter

The last enemy

Easter Sunday (March 31, 2013)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; I Corinthians 15:19-26; John 20:1-18

This is Passion Week and Easter in the Western Christian tradition. Palestinian and Iraqi Christians who follow the Western church calendar will celebrate this weekend. In the Eastern tradition – which is followed here in Jordan and by Orthodox Christians throughout the region — Easter will not be celebrated until May 5.

Pilate washes his hands of responsibility for Jesus' death (stain glass window in the Church of the Flagellation, Jerusalem)

Pilate washes his hands of responsibility for Jesus’ death (stain glass window in the Church of the Flagellation, Jerusalem)

In the region this week:

Syrians crossing the Yarmouk River (Jordan Times file photo)

Syrians cross the Yarmouk River into Jordan (Jordan Times file photo)

  • U.S. President Barak Obama visited Jordan, pledging an additional $200 million to help Jordan offset burgeoning costs of hosting Syrian refugees. In a joint press conference with Obama on Mar. 22, Jordan’s King Abdullah said:

Jordan today is hosting, by far, the largest number of Syrian refugees. The numbers have just exceeded 460,000 Syrians. That is 10 percent of our population. And the alarming figures, if the rates continue as we’re seeing today, will probably double by the end of the year. So for the Americans in the audience, that’s the equivalent of 30 million refugees crossing into the United States — the possibility of that going up to 60 million by the end of the year — relative, obviously, to our populations.

Syrian refugees watch the convoy of U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Guterres as he visits Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria March 13, 2013. (REUTERS photo by Muhammad Hamed)

Syrian refugees at Al Za’atari camp watch convoy for UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, during his  March 13, 2013 visit (REUTERS photo by Muhammad Hamed)

The Common Lectionary readings for this Easter Sunday focus on death and new life.

In the Old Testament reading, Isaiah describes a day when there will be no more weeping or cries of distress. “No more shall there be in (Jerusalem) an infant that lives but a few days,” Isaiah writes, “or an old person who does not live out a lifetime.” (Is. 65:20) Isaiah’s hope is rooted in God’s promise: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” (v.17)

In the Gospel reading, Mary of Magdalene visits the tomb of Jesus, only to find it empty. Weeping in her grief, she encounters Jesus outside the tomb and mistakes him for the gardener. When she finally realizes it is Jesus, her grief turns to joy and she dashes off to announce to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” (John 20:1-18)

In the Epistle reading, Paul declares that Jesus has been raised from the dead, “the first fruits of those who have died.” (I Cor. 15:20) Paul writes that, during the period between Christ’s resurrection and his return, Jesus will destroy “every ruler and every authority and power.” (v.24) “The last enemy to be destroyed is death,” Paul asserts (v.26).

Candles burn brightly inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, also known as the Church of the Resurrection

Candles burn brightly inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, also known as the Church of the Resurrection

Indeed, death is the most powerful of all enemies. The fear of death and its cousins – the fear of being incarcerated, the fear of suffering, and the fear of being insecure or insignificant – determine many of our human choices.

The fear of death causes some to flee their homes and countries. It causes others to live in gated communities. It compels others to exercise extraordinary caution in where they will travel or what jobs they will do. It causes nations to build massive weapons systems for their protection.

Rulers and authorities use the fear of death as their ultimate weapon to intimidate the masses to obey orders. We have witnessed the use of this tool many times during the Arab Spring. We have also witnessed courageous crowds who refused to be intimidated by threats.

By allowing the Roman Empire and the Jewish religious establishment to crucify Jesus, God unmasked the bluster and bravado of their threat of death. The resurrection of Jesus showed convincingly that death could not contain him.

With the heaviness of the issues in the Middle East, we continue to be buoyed by photos of our granddaughter Sydney, here visiting Heidi's third-grade class

With the heaviness of the issues in the Middle East, we continue to be buoyed by photos of our granddaughter Sydney, here visiting Heidi’s third-grade class

God does not destroy enemies with shock and awe, blowing them to bits. Rather, God exposes their impotence in the face of God’s mighty power.

Death has been a source of suffering and pain for many families. It is a terrible and terrifying thing. But death’s days are numbered. It has already been exposed as insufficient to control those who place their trust in God. Thank God, it will someday be destroyed!


Walking in the resurrection

Easter 2 (April 15, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
I John 1:1-2:2; Acts 4:32-35; Ps. 133; John 20:19-31

We celebrated Eastern Orthodox Easter, April 15, with a sunrise service at Mt. Nebo. The western horizon was hazy, so our view of the Holy Land was not as clear as the famed panorama attributed to Moses (Deut. 34:1); still, it was pretty spectacular!

The Dead Sea and Plains of Moab as seen from Mt. Nebo

In the Middle East, Easter is a time for giving gifts, and visiting family and friends. During Easter season the media often profiles Christian communities in the region. We especially appreciated stories about Christians in Iraq and Syria.

Additionally, an article in the Jordan Times highlighted a recent workshop hosted by the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies (RIIFS), “Christianity in the East, Where to?” Participants from Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan, Palestine, Iran and Iraq discussed the reality and future of Arab Christians in the region at the MCC-sponsored event.

Armenian Orthodox Archbishop Sarkissian, with MCC staff Nada Zabaneh, Daryl Byler and Suzi Khoury, at RIIFS event

Speaking at the opening session Jordan’s Prince Hassan, chairman of the RIIFS, said that “Arab Christians are the pioneers of Arab thought.” RIIFS Director Dr. Kamel Abu Jaber noted that “Christians should not only stay in the region, but contribute to rebuilding pluralism in its social fabric.” At the end of the two-day workshop participants endorsed a proposal for an Arab “social charter” that can mobilize public opinion towards achieving public freedoms and equal rights, as well as strengthen democracy and achieve social justice and human dignity.

A fragile ceasefire in Syria is being tested, while a small group of U.N. monitors is set to arrive in Syria on Sunday.

On Thursday, Jordanian security officials arrested a Syrian government supporter in northern Jordan, after he was caught attempting to poison the water system for Syrian refugees who continue to come to Jordan. According to the Jordan Times, the Syrian refugees have “become a sensitive issue for Jordan, which has delayed the opening of the Kingdom’s first official refugee camp over fears of Damascus misinterpreting humanitarian assistance as official support for rebels.”

Syrian refugees in Mafraq load supplies on a pickup (photo by Taylor Luck for the Jordan Times)

Meanwhile, Israeli government and European airline authorities are preventing some 1,200 international activists from traveling to the West Bank this week to help open an international school and museum in Bethlehem, as part of the third annual “Welcome to Palestine” event.

In the Common Lectionary readings for this week, eyewitnesses give testimony to the resurrection of Jesus and describe life in the new community of those who follow him.

“We declare to you what was from the beginning,” writes John, “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life…” (I John 1:1). John proclaims that “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (v.5). All who want to have fellowship with God and with one another must walk in God’s light (v.7)

Luke writes, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,” (Acts 4:33) and notes that those who believed shared their lives together in extraordinary ways. They “were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common . . . (and) there was not a needy person among them.” (vv.32-34). In short, they put into practice the words of the psalmist: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” (Ps. 133:1)

The Gospel reading records the appearances of Jesus to his disciples after his resurrection, concluding that these and many other signs are written so that you “may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, and the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31)

In God’s design, Easter is not simply a one-time miracle of Jesus being raised from the dead. It is the basis and power for all humanity to walk in God’s light – living in unity, practicing justice and sharing resources.

Christian Orthodox worshipers hold up candles lit from the "Holy Fire" inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

On Saturday before Easter, Christians pack the Holy Sepulcher Church in Jerusalem (also known as the “Church of the Resurrection”). The Patriarch goes into the tomb of Jesus and his torch is lit by Holy Fire, which he then spreads quickly to the pilgrims who have packed the church, each holding a candle.

May God’s vision for a human community that walks in the light and power of the resurrection, spread like the Holy Fire, becoming soon a reality around the world.

Death swallowed forever

Easter Sunday (April 8, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Is. 25:6-9; Ps. 118:1-2, 14-24; I Cor. 15:1-11; John 20:1-18

Here in the Middle East it is both Palm Sunday and Easter weekend, depending on whether one is from an Eastern Orthodox or a Western church tradition. (The Eastern Orthodox will celebrate Easter, April 15.) Those following the Western calendar, such as the Latin Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran churches, released copies of  Holy Thursday and Easter homilies this week.

Sadly, heavy fighting continued in Syria this week, even though the Syrian government has agreed to a U.N.-Arab peace plan brokered by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Syrian refugees arrive in northern Lebanon (Reuters photo by Afif Diab)

Syrian refugees continue to flee by the thousands to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. By some reports there are now more than 130,000 Syrians in Jordan. Some 6,529 refugees have registered with UNHCR as of March 30. The large majority has chosen not to register for fear of being tracked by the Syrian government.

According to UNHCR figures:

  • 85.5% of those registered come from the cities of Homs, Dara, Damascus and Hama;
  • 50% of those registered are between the ages of 18 and 59;
  • 85% of the refugees in Jordan are in Amman, Irbid or Mafraq;
  • The security situation inside Syria and political opinion are the main reasons for flight;
  • Significant numbers of single males report that avoiding military service is the reason they left Syria.

Syrian children at Islahiye refugee camp in Turkey (Reuters photo by Osman Orsal)

In Jordan, MCC is providing more than $65,000 for local purchase of milk powder and diapers and is shipping 5,830 school kits, 6,900 hygiene kits, 7,350 blankets and 1,229 relief kits that will be distributed by Caritas Jordan to Syrian refugees and vulnerable people in the host community.

The Common Lectionary readings this Easter week highlight the transformation from death to life.

The prophet Isaiah describes a day when God will “destroy . . . the shroud that is cast over all peoples . . . swallow up death forever . . . wipe away the tears from all faces” and take away “the disgrace of his people.” (Is. 25:7-8).

The psalmist declares, “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.” (Ps. 118:17)

Paul writes that Christ “died for our sins . . . was buried . . . was raised on the third day” and then appeared to the disciples and to hundreds (I Cor. 15:3-7).

In the Gospel reading, Mary Magdalene goes to Jesus’ tomb on the first Easter morning and finds it empty. She begins to weep. Jesus appears and says to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” (John 20:15) At first Mary does not recognize Jesus, supposing him to be the gardener. But when he continues to speak with her, Mary’s tears of sadness quickly turn to tears of joy.

The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!

Latin Catholic Patriarch Fouad Twal commemorates Holy Thursday in Jerusalem

But with death all around us, how can one say that death has been swallowed forever? In fact, it has been an unusually violent year in the region. After years of absorbing Palestinian, Iraqi, Somali, Sudanese, Egyptian and Libyan refugees, Jordan is now receiving thousands fleeing the violence in neighboring Syria. Their stories of fear and suffering are sobering.

Indeed, suffering is unabated. “Every day we are confronted by the absence of freedom of movement and peace, frustrations, suffering, and even martyrdom,” lamented Fouad Twal, Latin Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem, in his Holy Thursday homily. “These living conditions wound us in our innermost soul. We hunger and thirst so much for justice and peace, we dream of leading a simple normal life.”

Still, with the resurrection of Jesus, the system of violence and domination has been exposed as impotent – ultimately unable to stand against God’s resurrection power. To be sure, the powers of death have won and continue to win temporary victories – Jesus was killed, the powerful persist in perpetrating injustice, violent conflicts continue to snuff out many lives. The horror of these tragedies is not diminished.

But the meaning of Easter is that God is transforming and will continue to transform these most painful human realities — turning weeping to laughter, famine to feast, disgrace to honor, destruction to salvation and death to life.

Summer Snowflakes bloom at the JMU Arboretum in Harrisonburg, Va. (photo by Holden Byler at http://www.simplecomposition.com/)