May 2014 was a bittersweet month in Jerusalem. Anastasia, one of my three sisters, passed away unexpectedly on the 8th, and on the 24-26th, His Holiness Pope Francis made pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
My sister was Sister Anastas of St. Joseph of the Apparition. Raised Orthodox Christian, she completed her schooling at St. Joseph’s College in Jerusalem, eventually becoming Roman Catholic, joining St. Joseph’s, and dedicating her life to caring for the sick at the St. Joseph Hospital in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem.
My sister’s life, while unique, is symbolic of the lives of many members of the clergy and laity who have struggled and are struggling to sustain the presence, empowerment, and well-being of Christians in the Holy Land, while they benefit the whole society. In the words of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, they work “to replace despair with hope, fear with human security, and humiliation with dignity.”
The Pope’s visit, with its motto “So that they may be one,” meant a lot to my sister. She cared little for the divisions within the Christian faith. She knew of the Pope’s planned meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, which commemorated and reenergized the pledge to unity that His Holiness Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople made when they met in Jerusalem 50 years ago. As children growing up in Jerusalem, we deeply felt the impact of the historic visit between the Pope and the Patriarch as that occasion witnessed “let there be light,” the arrival of electricity to our Al-Thori neighborhood of Jerusalem!
Sister Anastas sought the light in all she did. She took faith seriously and constantly put it into action. The Holy Family was her inspiration, as she loved and prayed for us—her own family—for the family of nuns with whom she lived and toiled for some 37 years, and for the world. Determined and strong willed, she stood for what is right and was never shy at voicing her opinion about spiritual and secular issues.
Sister Anastas was close to all people, especially her Palestinian Arab society. She cared deeply about the youth, the poor, the sick, and peace. The Blessed Virgin Mary, or Theotókos (Bearer of God) in the Orthodox Christian tradition, touched her being, her soul, and was for her a model of hope, love, sacrifice, and service. She took to heart what the Holy Bible, saints, and popes stated about loving the other, and put it into real, practical form. As Pope Francis explained: “To love God and neighbor … means seeing in every person the face of the Lord to be served, to serve him concretely. And you are, dear brothers and sisters, the face of Jesus.”
Highly intelligent, multilingual, and a whiz at math, Sister Anastas taught many students not only how to think critically and solve problems correctly, but also how to be confident and excel. Extremely skilled in the nursing profession, she showed boundless empathy and energy as she provided loving service to others. Her dedication began at an early age when she tutored, and whatever income she made went to assist the needy. I often accompanied her as she visited the home of a blind couple and performed countless chores for them, ranging from buying groceries and cooking to cleaning and sowing. She ached when people’s rights were trampled upon or when they were adversely affected, and continuously prayed for reconciliation in the Holy Land.
Pope Francis’ pilgrimage means different things to different peoples. In addition to his call for unity, what stands out for me is his message of gratitude for those who sacrifice and serve, including the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition, his message of hope for those who are suffering and searching for dignity and justice, and his message of harmony and peace for all.
Sister Anastas rests in peace in the Roman Catholic Cemetery on Mount Zion, in close proximity to the Room of the Cenacle, Church of the Dormition of Mary, Cemetery of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate where my father and grandparents are buried, and King David’s Tomb. Regardless of where one is buried, what is crystal clear is that God is one, the Holy City is one, and Mount Zion is one. I can see my sister smiling in agreement!
Celebrating Holy Mass with the Ordinaries of the Holy Land in the Room of the Cenacle on May 26th, Pope Francis spoke of “How much love and goodness has flowed from the Upper Room! How much charity has gone forth from here, like a river from its source, beginning as a stream and then expanding and becoming a great torrent.”
Sister Anastas was definitely a spring, giving energy to those around her. Her name is a blessing. Her memory lives in me and in countless others. Her soul hovers in the Heavenly Jerusalem.
By: Dr. Saliba Sarsar
Dr. Saliba Sarsar, born and raised in Jerusalem, is Secretary of the Board of Directors of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation as well as Professor of Political Science and Associate Vice President for Global Initiatives at Monmouth University.