By Jeremy Tobin, O.Praem.
I write this on Monday of Holy Week. For the last few years I have been working to get our Catholic people aware of our fellow Christians in the Middle East who undergo consistent persecution by fanatics. These Eastern Christians are descendants of the first Christians from Biblical times. On Palm Sunday the Coptic Church in Egypt, St. George in Tanta and St. Mark in Alexandria were bombed. Pictures of people and clergy with palms in their hands, bloodied and in shock tells me they are us, and we are them. Pope Francis sent his condolences and referred to their patriarch, Pope Tawadros II as his brother.
The patron of our priory was a Coptic monk whose relics are in a monastery east of Cairo. He is a popular saint in Egypt, Abba Moses or Moses the Black. Despite historical and theological differences, we Catholics and the Eastern Christians have much in common. Historically Muslims and Christians have gotten along and coexisted peacefully. Muslim leaders condemned these attacks by people who distort Islam and are fanatics. They, too, sent their condolences and support.
I begin this Holy Week/Easter column with this account to focus us on the joy of our religion. We celebrate a grizzly execution, year after year. We read the long account of Christ’s Passion and death, only to glory in his resurrection. From the beginning Christians were persecuted.
In fact martyrdom was the highest state of Christians. When the imperial persecutions ended, people began the monastic life in the deserts as a substitute for martyrdom. All these accounts tell from their death came heavenly glory. Christ died and rose, and so do the martyrs. Persecution never eliminates Christians, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” When the emperor became Christian began a new chapter in the history of Christianity.
This can be said in so many ways. Truth always overcomes falsehood. Good always triumphs over evil. Easter says this loud and clear.
God became human and shared human sorrow, suffering and death. Shawn Copeland, an African-American Catholic theologian wrote a piece about Palm Sunday and Holy Week. She writes, “With Palm Sunday comes the week that Christians cherish as no other.” In Rome, in Alexandria, in Jackson Mississippi, we see the same symbols, the ornate palms, the same Gospel passages. Different ceremonies, different languages, but, Oh so familiar. So it goes all week long, even to the glorious day of Resurrection. The Greeks say, “Christos Anasti!’ We say, “Christ has Risen!”
The mystery and joy of Easter is that our God became human and allowed himself to be beaten, mocked, spit upon and die a most ignominious and prolonged death. Total vulnerability. Dr. Copeland says, “The idea of a suffering God disturbs and unsettles us. If our God so suffers, is so exposed to the brutality and power of the world, what shall become of us?”
She writes, “We stand with our God only insofar as we stand beside and wait in active and compassionate solidarity with children, women and men who suffer concretely, unbeautifully, and actually in our world, which is God’s world, the poor, oppressed and excluded; abused children, battered women and homeless men.” We stand and wait in love ‘for Love to cast upon us the rays of dark, divine glory.’”
Then, still standing at the tomb, we see the light and the power, the glory of the Risen Christ like nothing else, and feel that healing, that unity that completion of all that is human on this earth, and feel the glory of heaven.
This is why Christianity is never pessimistic. It may accompany the suffering and the horrible, but in the end, the devil loosens his grip and change takes place. We may call it freedom. We may call it redemption. We can call it love overcoming and destroying hate. It is the creature reflecting perfectly the image of its creator. Genesis is fulfilled.
(Father Jeremy Tobin, O.Praem, lives at the Priory of St. Moses the Black, Jackson.)