Easter in Bethlehem - when being a Christian is more than a label

Here in Bethlehem it is both Easter Day (for Catholics of various descriptions - Latins, Melkites, Syrian Catholics, Maronites etc) and Palm Sunday for Greek Orthodox and the 'pre-Chalcedonian churches' such as the Assyrian Orthodox, Copts etc. The bells are ringing, the sun is bright, and even today we had our first butterfly, that sign of the resurrection, in our courtyard.

Easter is something you carry in you, always. It is not an event, a holiday, a festival, or even the culmination of a liturgical sequence. It is just...life lived with Jesus Christ. The be all and end all of everything is simply, life lived in proximity to Him. That gives us happiness, strength, courage such as was demonstrated time and time and time again this past year as Christians, adults, young people and yes even children, preferred death, literally, to leaving that Presence, that relationship.

Being a Christian is not a label, just like being married. It is a name which carries your identity, because it inscribes in your very being the people you love. Being a Christian is a lived relationship, not a set of rules you subscribe to.

Christians are different to Jews and Muslims. Our faith is in a living person, not in a set of words in a book, however inspired we might think it to be. The Bible is only a tool, the Sacraments also, also the Church. But beautiful tools because they are powerful means by which this awesome relationship sustains itself. Going to church and participating in the Liturgy doesn't make you good or bad, it simply makes that relationship stronger, more enduring, more life transforming and more available through you to others.

During the Easter Liturgy at the Melkite monastery, it struck me how deeply moving this relationship between God and us is. Fragile, messy people, but so loved by God, so embraced and wanted. God's wanting us is very tangible, but worked through many small fragments, coincidences, moments when the implications of God reverencing our humanity so much he not only took it to Himself by making Himself human, but so much so that he went to the very darkest places of human actions to do so.

By this I mean that it is more often than not that people find themselves believing in Jesus precisely at those times when they feel His absence so keenly they discover how much they need it. That loneliness in the face of the annihilation of death, be it of your unborn child or your aged parent; that time when your life falls into pieces, no job, no relationship, no money, no home of your own, a failed exam, the moment you cross the line and realise you have done something really stupid and there is no way out. These moments take us away from that stable centre of our existence, that goodness which we sort of presume is waiting for us most days when we wake up, that basic happiness which we so easily take for granted. And suddenly we see our life for the precarious thing it is without that stable centre which we immediately identify as something to do with God... which is the implication behind our falling to our knees in desperation and mumbling some incoherent prayer.

The Gospel is full of moments which show this relationship between God and man crystallise in the meeting with Jesus. It begins at the time of Jesus' birth, and reaches a crescendo at the resurrection which propels this into the continuing course of human history, which includes, of course, today. Jesus is met by the shepherds and wise men, then the elders in the temple, the disciples, then those needing healing, the possessed, the blind, the lame. Jesus' ministry is a constant stream of people meeting Jesus and either entering into a life changing relationship with him, or rejecting him, almost always violently. And what begins as an external meeting becomes a deep communion - 'I am with you... I am in you!" Baptism, the Eucharist, indeed all the sacraments simply make this deep bonding between God and us possible, opening more and more ways that God's abundant love can grasp us every closer to Himself. If we let Him.

Sadly there is a bad tendency to try and control this process, to dress it up and to try and package it with rules and laws. Not that laws are not necessary to ensure that what is offered as the means for this relationship to thrive are not compromised, but they are a means to an end, not the end itself. Just like a marriage cannot be defined and limited to not having an affair, so the Christian faith cannot be defined and limited to formal holding of certain behaviours or beliefs. And the reality is that any relationship has its ups and downs, is messy. But please God it usually endures, growing through the tensions, failures and difficulties, with the experience of mercy, forgiveness, and sacrifice. This is what Florensky (see previous post) meant by saying that spiritual pride is all about a preoccupation with keeping our room tidy.

It is fascinating, to my mind, that after Jesus' ascension, Judaism split into to radically opposed forces which meant that the Judaism as Jesus knew it was gone forever. Both factions drew on elements already present in Biblical Judaism but in ways that radically reshaped the religion to the point of re-laying the foundations. One group, accepting Jesus as the Messiah, as having died on the Cross and risen after harrowing hell and before ascending into glory, came to re-define everything they had known around the Person of Jesus and their relationship with Him. Gradually dietary laws and temple sacrifices gave way as Judaism fulfilled itself as a fountain for all peoples and nations. The narrow familial definition of the twelve tribes was split apart as the nations poured in. This process was painful and took many, many decades until Christianity emerged as the faith of those who were 'in Christ' and following His Way.

The other group, rejecting Jesus as Messiah and falling in behind the leadership which had Him executed, faced a second crisis, the destruction of the Temple within forty years of the initial crisis over Jesus. This swept away the priesthood, the high priestly family and the whole basis of Jewish relationship with God through atonement by prescribed sacrifice. The Law was more about this than about ethical behaviour, but faced with this eradication of the centre of ancient Judaism the Law as ethics became everything. Judaism became a religion defined by the books of the Law, and its energy was consumed doing the very thing Jesus had struggled against, the arguing about the meaning of words and punctuation, about rabbis interpreting the words, the text.

Islam, in many ways a sort of Christian offshoot, likewise took religion back into laws and away from relationship. While focused on an individual it nevertheless rooted itself in legalisms, the endless debates about what the Prophet did and didn't mean, and the total domination of all means of relationship with God with the book of the Quran. Out went the freedom and inclusivity of all, and back came a religion dominated by tribal traditions and loyalties, and concerned over what you could eat and the cleanliness of your underwear when you wanted to pray. Relationship with God focused not on an inner Presence, but on your ability to keep rules and to belong to the community through codes of dress, keeping moral precepts and the imposition of duties and dues.

A religion that puts all this before the relationship is something stale, that imposes burdens rather than setting people free. Christianity is the faith which while valuing the standards to which the Law etc testify, never puts that as the basis of our relationship with God, but rather as a fruit of it. Christianity accepts the messiness of people's lives without condoning our compromises with living life to the full, full of compassion, honesty, self-sacrifice, generosity of spirit, fidelity to our word and to others, beauty...in other words to love lived and treasured and shared.

At the Paschal vigil last night I thought of the obliteration of Christianity throughout the region, and how blessed we were to be free to at least celebrate Christ's resurrection here in Palestine without any fear of attack or ridicule, though Palm Sunday saw Israeli military conduct a serious incursion into Beit Jala which cut short celebrations in the Latin community there. But as far as the Muslim community is concerned Christians are totally free to worship as they like, and in public, with processions a very important part of the celebrations of all sections of the Christian community over Holy Week. As we gathered with real joy last night, I couldn't help but think that not a thousand miles away Christians would be huddled in fear of their lives.

More tragic still is that the vision of humanity redeemed, and not just judged and condemned is being extinguished so that the message of the Gospel will no longer be heard in these lands unless, as in the great missionary eras, people are willing to basically stand up, speak, and die in very quick succession. This is no longer about constructive interfaith dialogue, this is about offering people the most wonderful, life giving, hope inspiring, love filled relationship which literally will take the most depraved, broken, wounded person and open up heaven with all the joy that means. The eradication of the Christian community means that for millions of people the chance of even hearing of that relationship between them and God will be hidden, and with that the chance to enjoy knowing just how much they are loved by God and to have His Presence deep in the messiness of their lives.


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