“They stood still, looking sad.” – Luke 24:17
I was recently walking from the Jaffa Gate to my office through the streets of the old city of Jerusalem when I encountered a long-time shopkeeper acquaintance. He was the kind of person always full of energy, always talkative, always with a smile on his face. This day—as we were approaching Holy Week and Easter—he was quiet, just standing there, looking a bit sad. “What’s wrong,” I asked. “Nothing,” he answered. When I pressured him, he said, “Nothing is well in Jerusalem.” The rest of that day, I asked myself, “Why?”
According to psychologists, sadness is a degree of frustration. Sadness grows out of confusion coming from a disappointing sequence of events.
On that first Easter afternoon, those two Emmaus disciples stood there on the road, looking sad. They were sad because they were confused. They had heard the proclamation that Jesus was risen, but they were overwhelmed by other events, other factors that led them to question, to doubt, to feel frustrated so much that they could hardly move one foot in front of the other. They wanted nothing more than to sit down in the middle of the road and to cry.
So why this sadness, this frustration, this confusion?
First, it was a question of the mass media. In that day, this was the circulation of messages by word of mouth. The dominant message was that the body of the one crucified on Golgotha had gone missing. Now rumors were rampant. “The disciples had come in the night and stolen the body,” some had said. “It was the gardener,” said others. “It must have been the soldiers,” still others suggested. These followers of Jesus were grief stricken and could not think clearly, and now on top of that, their thoughts were pulled first this way and then that by the mass media of the day.
We all know that the media often presents multiple images, sometimes conflicting, often creating doubt and confusion over what to believe. We all know that the mass media can play a big role in interpreting the message, even creating news from nothing, yes even twisting the truth. When such messages turn blatantly false, we call this incitement, causing people to act in ways we would never have expected. Why is it that our world seems built on such incitement in the realm of public relations?
These disciples found themselves listening to the mass media of their day, rather than relying on the sure and certain word that Jesus had taught them.
“The Son of Man must undergo great suffering,” Jesus had instructed them, not once, not twice, but three times! “…and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed,” he continued, and most important of all, “and after three days rise again.” (Mk 8:31). It was clear. It was simple. It was to the point. Yet by the time these disciples had tried to recite this teaching of Jesus to the stranger on the road, they had left out the final declaration, “and after three days rise again.” At the point when they uttered those words, “crucified” (Luke 24:20), their voices cracked with emotion and fell silent. Jesus had taught them, but now the rumors passing through the streets of Jerusalem had become a thunderous roar that drowned out the promises of their beloved teacher.
No wonder they were confused! Yet there was a second reason.
They had lost hope. “We had hoped,” they said, “that he was the one to redeem Israel.” (Luke 24:21). Today we look at that hope in a very spiritual way. Yet their hopes were likely couched in the political jargon of the day. Jesus was a zealot, so many had thought. Creating freedom meant removing the Roman occupation, so many thought. Restoring the throne of David meant building a state, so many thought. Bringing justice meant a special place for this inner circle of followers, so many thought. “We had hoped,” they sighed thinking of what it might have been and what it might have meant for them: power, prestige, political success. But now these dreams had vanished. Lost hope meant lost power.
No wonder they were frustrated! Yet there was still more.
Their fellow disciples had lost all sanity, or so Luke said. They were hallucinating, as loved ones often do when losing a spouse, seeing them in a familiar place, sitting in a favorite chair, wearing a favorite garment, saying a special term of endearment. Of course, one might expect this behavior from one’s mother. But the others? Angels, they said, they had encountered a vision of angels. Where was reason and sanity when they needed it?
No wonder the Emmaus disciples were sad the first Easter, unable to walk another step.
Today it is no different. We in the Middle East are confused, frustrated, and saddened.
Everyday words of incitement echo throughout the streets. What are we to believe about the Arab Awakening and the latest developments? What are we to believe about reports coming out of Syria? What are we to believe from voices concerning Iran? What are we to believe from the rumors of war? We hear the incitement from extremists on all sides. We watch how some are trying to shift a political conflict into a religious one. We see the signs of hate and intolerance with the burning of mosques, vandalizing of churches, and threatening of synagogues. As for Jerusalem, it would seem as if we are living in a bubble. The winter winds blow the tall grass this way and then that. Where is truth? Who are we to trust?
I want to share with you part of a message we have just received from the Synaxis of Primates of the Orthodox Churches of the Middle East that met last week in Cyprus. They highlighted the importance of Syria as a land in which Christians have existed since the dawn of Christianity and where they continue “to coexist with mosques in a unique symbolism of symbiosis, fraternity, and mutual respect that bring people together.” The Primates of Churches confirmed their commitment to support all the efforts and necessary initiatives in order to restore peace and achieve the aspirations of all citizens of Syria.
Recently Arab Christians have dominated the news. It’s almost as if the story of our small Christian community has become a political commodity. There are testimonies of faith, stories of hope, and announcements of accomplishments. At the same time, there are accusations and misrepresentations; there are character assassinations and words of incitement. No wonder some people are confused. We as Arab Christians must not be seen as aliens, but as an integral part of the fabric of our societies. In this modern setting of conflicting reports, can we believe that Christ is indeed raised and living in our midst, here in Jerusalem?
In Jerusalem there is also a sense of vulnerability, a loss of a sense of power. Christ clearly does not seek power and might, only truth that leads to forgiveness. Yet the enticement of political influence opens doors for extremists, making the Middle East a battlefield for them.
Where is the role for moderates in this context? Where is our voice? Once the calm voice of moderation made up the sane and stable middle, a large centrist majority of society. Now the shouting from both poles dominates and prevents the moderate view to get a word in edgewise, let alone to score any points. Extremism is not the monopoly of one religion or one nation, but extremism has become the driving force of the entire Middle East. They would suggest that ideas of living together, of loving the other, of respecting the other, all are futile. These ideas are looked at as if we are living in another world. They promote instead a worldview that denies the rights of the other. When moderates lose power or are looked at as weak or insane, then it is society as a whole that suffers. It is society as a whole that is the biggest loser. This is the reason that some of us find ourselves like the two Emmaus disciples, standing still and looking sad.
The disciples misunderstood Jesus’ teaching. They were being empowered not to rule the world, but to transform the world; to be bridge-builders, not wall-builders.
The resurrection news is that Jesus continues to come into our midst, walks with us, and accompanies us along our road to Emmaus. We often do not recognize the risen Jesus in the stranger who has become our companion. Jesus is there in the ones accompanying us, the young and the old, men and women, people of all nations and ethnicities, people who speak languages so different from our own. Jesus is there in the other—the one walking with us along the road, the one listening to our stories, the one empathizing with our plight, the one lifting up our eyes to see beyond the present moment.
I am reminded of the accompaniment offered by Ignatius of Antioch to the churches of Asia Minor while traveling to Rome to his eventually martyrdom:
Labor together; strive together; run together; suffer together; rest together and rise together. You are stewards in God’s house, members of [God’s] household and [God’s] servants… be long-suffering towards one another and gentle, as God is with you. May you be my joy always! (Ignatius, Letter to Polycarp, chapter 6).
The words of Ignatius speak to us today. There is no better accompaniment than what is offered by one living out the hope of resurrection.
The good news is that Jesus continues to give us a reason to hope. “We had hoped,” we often say as if the reason for our hopes has died, as if our hopes had been nothing but a fleeting fancy, as if our hopes were blown away with the dust of the ground by the strong April winds. “We had hoped,” we say in despair, and Jesus reminds us that ours is a God of everlasting hope. Jesus directs us to the unfailing promises of God, to read the Scriptures until our hearts burn with excitement and longing, to focus on Jesus’ own teaching that it was necessary for the Son of Man to suffer, and to rise again, and that he lives in Jerusalem, in the whole Middle East, and to the ends of the earth. We live in hope, no matter what our circumstances, no matter what the rumors, no matter what the media says to the contrary. We live in hope, because Jesus is alive and with us until the end of the age. We Arab Christians, who received this message of the resurrection so many years ago, now keep the hope alive from generation to generation in order to continue to transform hate and division into a living hope that we might have life, and have it abundantly. And as long as this Middle East Church continues its faithful witness, the world will have a tangible sign of the truth of the resurrection.
The resurrection revives in us the hope that emanates from the cross and the empty tomb. Not a triumphal hope, but a hope that works against the odds. If the resurrection offers us the least expected surprise, so our hope opens the window to a future of surprises full of love and dignity. This is why we continue to affirm our commitment to the two-state solution with a shared Jerusalem for Jews, Muslims, and Christians, for Israelis and Palestinians.
The good news is that Jesus continues to feed us with bread for the journey so that our eyes are opened to the needs of the world and our souls are strengthened to return to Jerusalem. We are no longer standing still, immobilized by our grief and our fears, but hastening on our journey, running with the wind at our backs. We are no longer looking sad, but filled with joy, our mourning songs turned to dancing. The good news is that Jesus has called us to be his witnesses, to proclaim with confidence that Jesus is risen. He is risen indeed.
This is the reason that the Church has a mission today. It has the calling of the resurrection. We are to run back from Emmaus to Jerusalem nourished by the Eucharist and full of hope to join with the whole community of believers. We are to run back to Jerusalem to strengthen those who are sad, who feel confusion, who are uncertain. We are to run back to Jerusalem to remind our sisters and brothers that, the more the darkness of Good Friday seems to hover still over the Middle East, the more we are convinced of the strength of resurrection. We are to continue to run back to Jerusalem to proclaim that Christ is alive in our world today, despite all the odds. He is risen indeed.
Al Masih Qam! Haqan Qam!
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!
The Rt. Rev. Dr. Munib A. Younan, Bishop
Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land