The Arab World’s Way of the Cross towards Resurrection
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
To all of you, dear brothers and sisters,
your Graces the bishops,
Superiors General, Mothers General,
priests, deacons, monks, nuns
and all the sons and daughters of our Melkite Greek Catholic parishes
in Arab countries, the countries of emigration and throughout the world,
best wishes for
the Feast of the Resurrection of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ,
who is Hope and bears the hopes of us all.
This spiritual meditation, entitled The Arab World’s Way of the Cross towards Resurrection is for you. Through this letter, I am trying to shed a little light from the Resurrection and awareness of the most sublime Resurrection on the situation of our Arab countries, so that their ways of the cross may lead them to the joys and hopes of the Resurrection.
The Way of the Cross, a way to Resurrection
So we may sum up the time of Great and Holy Lent: that is indicated in our liturgical services as early as the first day of the Fast, called Monday of the Monk, where we read, “Let us begin the all-venerable season of fasting with joy, shining radiantly with the holy commandments of Christ our God, with the brightness of love, with the splendour of prayer, with the purity of holiness, and with the virtue of courage; so that, clothed in garments of light, we may hasten to the holy and third-day Resurrection, that illumines the world with the glory of eternal life.” (Kathisma Tone 2, Orthros of the First Monday in Lent)
The Arab World’s Way of the Cross
The Arab world’s way of the cross began around the first months of 2011. This is what Jesus Christ told us: “Ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars…For nation shall rise against nation and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows.” (Matthew 24: 6-8)
This is a way of the cross, along which are walking with difficulty over 350 million inhabitants of the Arab world, starting with the Arab Maghreb, across North Africa, Tunisia and Libya, passing through Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula, the countries of the Gulf, Bahrain and Yemen to continue the circle towards Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. As in Jerusalem, there is a way of the cross going along different axes from north to east, and east to west of Jerusalem and so our Arab countries are transformed into a great city called Jerusalem, where there is a garden of olive-trees, the place of our Lord Jesus Christ’s agony, the way of his Passion, Golgotha and Resurrection. Moreover, this way of the cross of Jerusalem is stretching out, so that the roads of the Arab world and a large number of these very beautiful and elegant places, have become a great way of the cross, of suffering, a bloody, sad Golgotha, where very many victims can be seen, weeping before or groaning under the cross, wounded, widows, orphans, wandering folk, each of whom is wounded in the heart, conscience and body. And voices are being raised, that are quite revolutionary and threatening. There are hands raised, not for prayer, but for vengeance, brandishing weapons for reprisal, revenge and destruction. People are afraid, they are leaving their country, their home: they are fleeing, frightened, wandering without shelter and without any way out, from one country to another that accepts or rejects them, spending the night in the open air on the borders of neighbouring countries.
That is the spectacle that hundreds of television crews are striving to film, magnifying and exploiting it. Millions of people are glued to their screens – men and women both young and old, teenage boys and girls, and little children – and learning these revolutionary shouts from television and enthusiastically and cheerfully repeating them.
We have been talking of Palestine’s cross, Jerusalem, Golgotha and passion for over sixty years now. Today, the whole Arab world is walking along this way of the cross that is much bloodier than Palestine’s and the Palestinians’ way of the cross: blood is flowing, folk are dying, hungry. The Arab world, this world, so rich in resources, especially oil, is hungry, hungry for the bread of freedom and dignity and for the bread of a worthy life; folk are adrift in their own homeland. In the face of a revolution that is leaving in its wake chaos, looting, theft, fear and loss, God alone knows whither this revolution will lead our Arab world that is wandering without knowing what the eventual outcome will be.
On television screens, many politicians, sociologists, trade experts, are trying to analyse, endeavouring to explain these revolutions invading our region and find out the reasons for them. Are they instigated abroad, at home, from Israel, or America, from colonisation or occupation, through political, commercial or economic ambitions or interests?
Faced with these attempts to analyse the reality of the Arab revolution and the reasons for it, I remember a phrase of the Holy Father, Benedict XVI, in his message for the World Day of Peace 2009, in which he said, “Every form of externally imposed poverty has at its root a lack of respect for the transcendent dignity of the human person. When man is not considered within the total context of his vocation, and when the demands of a true ‘human ecology’ are not respected, the cruel forces of poverty are unleashed.” (Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace, 2009, N°. 2)
In this sense, I gave a sermon on the Feast of the Annunciation on 24 March, 2011, in the Convent of the Soarite nuns, wishing to show the greatness of the Incarnation of Jesus in the womb of the Virgin Mary. For, when he took a body just like ours, he wished thereby to show the dignity of the human body, and bear the dignity of man, whom God created in his image and likeness, as we read in Genesis, concerning man’s creation by God.
What great need our world has of understanding the dignity of the body and the dignity of God! Man’s dignity, as God respected it and created him in his image and likeness, with his freedom, value, development and education.
Our world today, the Arab world in particular since the beginning of this year is in revolution for human dignity, the dignity of man, his freedom and value.
God’s dignity, respect for him and respect for his divine image are linked to respect for the image of man. There can be no respect for God without respect for man, as Saint John said, “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (1 John 4: 20) That is one of the reasons for wars and revolutions throughout the whole world.
The Feast of the Annunciation is the Feast of the Entry of God into human history and life through Mary and her blood. He is called Emmanuel, God with us, and when man rejects God, or distances Him from his life, man’s whole life is degraded, shaken and disfigured. An Arab proverb says, “Be with God and be not afraid,” and on the other hand, when man removes God from his thoughts, conduct, ethics, politics, economics, social life, family, job, work, he lands in trouble, loss, error, anxiety, despair, and allows jealousy, dictatorship, violence, terrorism and fundamentalism into his heart. Those things become his programme instead of the commandments of God, his principles of faith, and his religious values, and that is the tragedy of our world. This tragedy invades with a destructive power like a tsunami, due to the fact of the removal of God from man’s life.
Let us take down poor people from the cross and let the Arab world be taken down from the cross
In my letter for Lent, 2009, I wrote:
With trust and humility, I would like in this Lenten Letter to launch the slogan, “No more poor people after today in the Arab world,” and call upon everyone to work to realise, at least in part, this motto in our Melkite Greek Catholic Church1 – everyone contributing according to his ability and circumstances. I am calling for us to realise this through sustained solidarity and mutual help in our Arab world, where there are plentiful resources, such as oil. Let oil be a weapon against poverty, sickness and disasters! May it accompany the way of the cross in our Arab world and take down poor, sick, suffering and disappointed Arab people from their cross – and lead them to the heights of resurrection.
This is an appeal that I am making to my Church and launching in the Arab world, which I love. I would like to be the apostle and servant of this motto, so as to bring this appeal to fruition. I am calling upon each Arab governor and every wealthy businessman or woman, hoping that my call will be heard.
I am also ready to be the itinerant apostle of that motto, making my way through the Arab world and spreading that slogan, “No more poverty, no more poor folk in the Arab world.”
Besides, I think there is a divine call for us Christians and Muslims to draw upon our common faith values: we find an echo of it in our holy books. It is a call that unites us all around “a common word” (Aal ‘Imran 3:64) 2and a common action, so that God may walk with us and we may walk together with our peoples, our citizens, along the way of their cross and Golgotha, and help to take them down from their cross. (“I am crucified with Christ,”Letter for Great and Holy Lent 2009)
Man’s true bread
Man is hungry and thirsty for God. He needs the values of holy faith, of the word of God, as Scripture says, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4: 4; Deuteronomy 8: 3)
What our society needs to repair, heal, rebuild, renew, develop and raise it from its fallen state to real resurrection, beauty, transfiguration, radiance and purity, is God.
Man feeds first on the word of God, but he also needs material bread, just as he needs the bread of life. That means, being taught (in schools and universities), medicine, a job, a profession, health insurance, and social security for life, for the future, for old age or disability. People need a good environment that is healthy and clean in beautiful, natural surroundings, if they are to feel at ease socially, relax and enjoy themselves.
That is man’s true bread. These are conditions indispensible to his dignity. Opportunities also have to be found for people to rise, excel, specialise, give, be productive and serve their country. They must also be able to be in relation with their fellow-citizens, in fellowship with them, understand them and co-operate with them for a better world. So they will be able to enjoy freedom, dignity, security, assurance and stability. They will look towards broad horizons of hope, love, universal brotherhood, freedom of conscience, faith and specific identity.
It is really to resurrection from the dead that the Arab world’s way of the cross, the way of these demonstrations and displays, must lead. Resurrection must be the fruit of its sufferings, blood, thirst, hunger, wounds and many victims.
The Church’s role
Our Churches and religious congregations must continue their way of ecclesial and national faith, developing their worship, and educational, cultural, health, youth and social services. Churches ought to take part in the resurrection of Arab countries and contribute to the social, national, political and economic project in all our homelands, where we have among our faithful, businessmen, politicians and economists.
We must redouble our efforts, beginning with the propositions and conclusion of the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, held in Rome in October, 2010.
I have circulated to everyone a five-year plan, containing a bunch of thoughts, projects, works and initiatives that can help our churches participate in the service of development of our societies and homelands. We exhort everyone to study this five-year plan and put forward suitable proposals for furthering it. We hope to be able to deal with this five-year plan in our synod to be held at our patriarchal residence at Ain Traz in June 2011. We are counting very much on this work in order to accompany the development of our countries and further support our presence, communion, witness and mission to our countries and to all our citizens whom we love.
With His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, in his Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace 2009, (cited above) we say that the Christian community is “faithful to this summons from the Lord,” and “will never fail, then, to assure the entire human family of her support through gestures of creative solidarity, not only by giving from one’s surplus, but above all by a change of life-styles, of models of production and consumption, and of the established structures of power which today govern societies.” (N°. 15)
Unity of the Arab world
We should like the League of Arab States and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference to be able really to deal with this state of revolution in the Arab world by developing together a new programme for a new Arab Middle East: a really new programme, that we, not others, will set out, containing the conditions for a worthy life for all Arab citizens, Christian and Muslim, in this Middle East, cradle of religions, cultures and civilisations.
The unity of the Arab world is an important condition for coping with the serious development of these popular revolutions, or intifada.
If Arab countries do not manage to resolve together, univocally, these tragic, bloody developments, with wisdom, prudence, sense of responsibility, openness and a really clear plan that is transparent and sincere, the future of the Arab world looks very dark for all of us. No Arab country can be outside the evolution of this revolution.
Today more than ever, and not tomorrow, we need a sense of awakening, counsel, and a joint Arab social plan. Today, more than ever, we need a vision of an Arab Muslim-Christian future with immense horizons. Otherwise, our Arab world, with its various denominations of Muslim and Christian citizens, is liable to dislocation and division. This Arab world will crumble into isolated confessional statelets, fighting and hating one another.
Peace: the key to the future
On the other hand, it should be said that there exists a very significant element for realising all these hopes: peace. The Arab world cannot realise the hopes of Arab nations, especially those of young people, for freedom and democracy, if it does not work very seriously, with the mutual help of the West, to bring about just and lasting peace in the Holy Land, Palestine. Strength is needed for victory and that comes from unity and love among Arab countries. Unity will never be defeated and love will never fail or be disappointed.
A dream: an Arab Muslim-Christian spiritual summit
Perhaps I am being naive, a dreamer or idealist, if I dare to put forward an idea or project for holding an Arab Muslim-Christian spiritual summit? This is a call for a joint plan, for our Arab world to be enriched and inspired by the values of our Islamic and Christian faith, so that life can be better for all our citizens. I place this thought and dream in the hearts, minds, prayers and dreams of all the men and women who read this letter. God will grant our dreams to bear fruits of faith, love and hope.
Call to prayer
Dear brothers and sisters,
This year the Christian world of East and West, all our Churches are celebrating the Feast of the Resurrection together on the same day. We hope to be able to continue to celebrate together the greatest feast of the Christian faith.
We are living through difficult times, walking together with our Arab brothers and sisters along the way of the cross and passion, such as the Arab world has never known in its history. We call upon you to raise fervent prayers, especially during Holy Week, that we call Passion Week, for all those who have fallen, the victims of these bloody revolutions, for the afflicted, bereaved, injured in hospital, refugees, those who have fled the horrors of revolution; for children, students who cannot continue their university studies and even perhaps who are losing their future, those who are living in a climate of fear, violence, revenge, revolution, hatred and aggression. All that will surely have a great influence on their manners, characters, personalities, and their lives of faith and citizenship, and their social, political and environmental life.
We shall pray in our churches, monasteries, parishes, homes and in the intimacy of our families for our dear, suffering Arab world and for the whole world, for more fellowship, love and unity. We shall pray for the army, the security services, and the police that God may give them wisdom, prudence and sagacity to take suitable steps in these tragic situations. We shall pray especially for our governments, kings, presidents and all those who bear responsibility in our countries. We shall also pray that they respond to the demands, requests, hopes, sufferings, longings and needs of all their citizens; that they endeavour to establish a social and political programme, and so contribute to ensuring a worthy life for all citizens of their countries.
Our Arab world! You have a resurrection
Saint John the Evangelist brings us the miracle of the resurrection of Lazarus, friend of Jesus. Jesus speaks to Martha, Lazarus’ sister, saying, “Thy brother shall rise again.” (John 11: 23)
We say the same to every faithful person, to everyone, “You have a resurrection!” We tell our dear Arab world, “You have a resurrection too.” We call on our governments in our dear Arab countries to work seriously, with dedication, sincerity, veracity and without delay on a clear plan to build a better future for their peoples, so that they will be able to say to their nations, “You have a resurrection. You, citizen, will arise. You will hold your head high. You are worthy in the Lord’s eyes and in your homeland. You have a resurrection.”
We hope that the joys of the Resurrection of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, will invade our Arab world and that all our dear citizens, both Christian and Muslim, will then be able to rejoice together, as we suffer together! And as we walk together on the way of the passion and cross, we shall walk together on the roads of the joyful resurrection.
In the cadences of the Resurrection hymns, we should like to bring this joy, hope, gladness, to the hearts of all men and women, driving out from among us fear, distress and anxiety! And with the hymns of the Paschal Canon of Saint John of Damascus, son of Syria, we continue to sing throughout the whole world,
This is the day of Resurrection, let us be radiant, O ye peoples: Pascha, the Lord’s Pascha; for Christ God hath brought us from death to life, and from earth unto Heaven as we sing the triumphal hymn. (First Ode)
We also sing:
Yesterday I was buried with thee, O Christ. Today I arise with thee in thy resurrection. Yesterday I was crucified with Thee: Glorify me with thee, O Saviour, in thy kingdom. (Third Ode)
We turn to our Mother, the Mother of God who accompanied her Son on the way of the cross, the Via Dolorosa! She accompanies us on the way of the cross and passion! With her, we rejoice on the day of her Son’s Resurrection, which is our resurrection and that of our homelands and all our fellow-citizens.
We shall sing with faith, hope, love, trust, strengthening one another, in fellowship with one another, loving each other, in our Churches, homelands, and societies, with all our fellow-citizens (Christian and Muslim, men and women) where we shall be able to sing the hymn of the Resurrection and Life,
“Christ is risen from the dead! trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs he has given life.”
With my affection and blessing,
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, of Alexandria and of Jerusalem
Translation from French: V. Chamberlain
1 Cf. Patriarchal Christmas Letter Poverty and Development XII 2003