Loading...
Loading...
Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Stephanie SaldañaMarch 28, 2024
Women pray at the Stone of Unction, or Stone of Anointing, which represents where the body of Jesus was prepared for burial after the crucifixion, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem on March 14, 2019.

Christ is risen! Al-Masih Qam!

Christ is risen! These are the words that announce the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday around the world. As far as words go, they are easy to say, but sometimes difficult to fully believe. During years like this one, they are even harder to live.

Perhaps that is why when the announcement of Jesus’ resurrection is made in Arabic—whether in the Holy Land or around the world—the congregation’s reply is not an echo of that sentiment, but an affirmation. Haqqan Qam! Truly he is risen.

Despite death, despite darkness, despite all of our logic pointing to its impossibility, Christ is risen. Love has conquered death. Even now, in the midst of war.

In my years living among the small community of Christians in the Holy Land, I have learned from them that resurrection is the heart of our identity. It is captured in the Arabic language itself. In Arabic, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is called The Church of the Resurrection, pointing not to the place where Jesus died, but to the event that overcame death. All year long, local Christians pass in and out of the church, lighting candles for family members and friends, kissing the doorway, the resurrection a current running beneath everyday life.

In the Syriac Catholic Church where I celebrate and where my husband is a parish priest, we accompany Jesus in his death and resurrection each Holy Week, a reminder that we are not remembering something from the past, but entering into an event that is happening now. During the traditional Syriac Catholic Holy Friday liturgy, the corpus is taken down from a cross in the church, laid out and anointed with oil and incense. We place flowers at his feet. The body is laid in a casket and carried in a funeral procession around the courtyard, then placed in a tomb beneath the altar. On Holy Saturday, which we refer to here as Sabt al-Noor, the Saturday of Light, we wait and pray in hopeful expectation. It is only on Easter Sunday that the tomb is opened. The presiding priest joyfully calls out to the congregation:

Al-Messiah Qam!

And we respond: Haqqan-Qam! Truly he is risen.

But how can we celebrate Easter this year? As I write this, the war in Gaza has been ongoing for nearly six months. In Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the pilgrims who usually fill the streets are absent, and many Christians who live in the West Bank did not receive permits to join celebrations in Jerusalem. In a normally joyous season in which Easter, Ramadan and Passover almost overlap, we are unmoored. Many Muslims feel guilty breaking the fast at the end of each day, knowing that people in Gaza are still going hungry. Israelis are deeply wounded that the hostages are still in captivity. The annual Palm Sunday march was led by Scout troops walking silently instead of playing the jubilant music that usually begins the procession. George, a Christian university student in Bethlehem, told me: “Sometimes I live in the past. Sometimes I live in the future. And some days I am able to live in the present. But it is difficult to breathe.”

Over the past months, I have meditated most often on Jesus in Gethsemane, praying among the trees. His loneliness. Those last, tender acts on Holy Thursday: washing the feet of his friends, breaking bread. And his request, which we have taken not only as a prayer but as a purpose: Remain here and keep watch with me.

We have tried our best, moved by the fidelity of the Christians in Gaza who have continued to celebrate Christmas in wartime, to hold baptisms, to wave branches on Palm Sunday. They remind us that the church is one body, that we are praying not only for them but with them.

One recent morning, I arrived at the office of Sami el-Yousef, the chief executive officer of the Latin Patriarchate, who has remained in contact with the Christian community in Gaza and is aware of the situation on the ground. He told me that the numbers he has received are “staggering.” Approximately 32,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza. 73,500 people are injured and without access to medical care. Of the 2.3 million people in Gaza, 1.7 are internally displaced. Many of them, after months of war, are in desperate need of psycho-social support.

He noted that most of Gaza’s small Christian community remains. Many of their homes have been destroyed, so they will have nowhere to return to when the war is finished. He was touched when, on a recent evening when he was speaking to the Rev. Youssef Asaad, a priest in Gaza, he was gently asked if they might speak later. It was 8 o’clock, and Pope Francis usually calls at that time. Father Youssef did not want to hold up the phone line.

“The important message that we want to project as a church is that the church will not abandon Gaza,” el-Yousef emphasized. He noted that when the war is over, the church will have to discern how best to serve the people there. Many donors remain hesitant to invest in rebuilding in a region that appears trapped in an endless cycle of violence. They fear new buildings might just be destroyed in the next conflict.

“We need a horizon for the future,” he said. “We cannot continue to go from war to war.”

•••

Easter will not be postponed this year. It will not wait until the war is over. It is precisely now, in our darkest hour, that resurrection finds us—searching for a horizon where it seems that there is none. Hope comes into the tomb of our lives, breaking down the walls, so that we might have the courage to live differently.

“How can we not be filled with hope ourselves, sisters and brothers?” St. Oscar Romero asked during the civil war in El Salvador. “In these days when we realize that our human strength can do no more, when we behold our homeland stuck in a dead-end alley, we realize that a truly transcendent salvation is needed.”

Yes, the resurrection finds us where we are. And like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we too are transformed, called through this encounter to see in ways that were before unimaginable, to witness openings where before there were only closings, to see possibility where before there was only enmity, to see love where before there was only violence and death. I think of the words of Philip Shano, S.J., who notes in an essay called “Resurrection and the Imagination” that “the resurrection blows the evident horizon wide open and opens us up to a new horizon, a world of new possibilities.” It is one in which we dare to call our deepest hopes by name.

Christ is risen. Perhaps it is our fragile, human hope that this war will soon end. But it is our Easter hope that this war will not only end, but that it will be the last war here, that a better future is possible.

Truly.

The latest from america

U.S. Catholics are more polarized than ever in how they view Pope Francis, even though majorities on both ends of the political spectrum have a positive view of the pope, according to a new survey.
In this special round table episode of “Inside the Vatican,” America Editor-in-Chief Father Sam Sawyer and the Executive Director of Outreach, America’s LGBT Catholic resource, Michael O’Loughlin, join host Colleen Dulle for a discussion on the document “Dignitas Infinita” and the pastoral
Inside the VaticanApril 12, 2024
Miles Teller stars in a scene from the movie "Whiplash." (CNS photo/courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)
Played by Miles Teller, Andrew falls prey to an obsession so powerful that it robs us of the clarity or freedom to make good choices.
John DoughertyApril 12, 2024
In one way or another, these collections bear the traces of the divine, of the needful Christ.
Delaney CoyneApril 12, 2024