Easter in Jerusalem, Signs of Life Stronger than the Tomb and Death

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – In these days as “the whole world looks to Jerusalem”, to the place that is mother to the world’s Christians, the Jerusalem Church has “a message of hope and of life” for the entire world.  Easter is not a time of “mourning at death’s tomb”, it is instead a “new impulse” to “recognize the Face of the Lord”, to “break bread with Him” so that we can then break bread “with every man”, wherever there is need.

Speaking to AsiaNews Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, OFM, Custodian of the Holy Sites in the Holy Land, explains the meaning of Easter, of Christ’s death and resurrection, for the Christians in the Holy Land and for the entire world.  Faced with signs of death which accumulate daily in Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, the Franciscan father affirms that “God has the last word over the situations of death and fear” which dominate the Middle East and that “His last word is hope”.  In proof of this, Fr. Pizzaballa gives examples of relations, friendships, brotherhoods born between Israelis and Palestinians, between Christians, Muslims and Jews.  And sites the case of a meeting on the figure of Christ in which “an ex Israeli general and former Palestinian militant” participated.  These some signs of hope “may be few”, adds the Custodian, but they represent “a departure point”.  In the end, when Jesus arose from the dead, the disciples were also few in number and unsure in their faith”.  This is Fr Pizzaballa’s exclusive interview withAsiaNews.


Fr. Pizzaballa, what meaning does Easter have here in Jerusalem, after a year which saw a war between Israel and Lebanon, and internal conflict among the Palestinians?   


If we are objective then we must admit that there have been wars here for a long time.  Certainly this last year has been more arduous and difficult than most, but the meaning of Easter remains the same: Easter is the celebration of Life, the resurrection.  God has the last word over death and fear, and His word is a word of life and of hope.  Even in the face of the Lebanese war, the Palestinian tensions, the Israeli-Palestinian crises, the Easter message is that despite everything we must continue to believe in human goodness; because it is a reflection of God’s goodness.  Of course, there is also cruelty, evil and Satan also exists.  But God’s last word is life giving and good.


But faced with violence and war does this hope not seem a little far off?


Perhaps. On the surface, death, war, divisions, seem to touch us more evidently.  But being here, living this reality, you slowly become aware that beyond the division there is also consensus; that beyond death there are also signs of life and hope in the many people who despite it all, continue to live, believe and invest in their relationships with each other.   There are Israeli and Palestinian organizations who meet together; schools which twin with each other; Muslim, Christian and even Jewish young people who study together; people who continue to believe that it is possible to live together in harmony. These small signs of life and hope may be few – this I concede.  But they represent a point of departure, however small.  In the end even when Christ arose from the dead the disciples were also few and unsure in their faith.


Just one example: recently there was a study convention, organized by and Israeli- Palestinian group which brought together Christians, Muslims and Jews.  The subject under discussion was the Christian roots of our society, in collaboration with the Salesian fathers.  There were around thirty people, a very small group, but there an ex Israeli general met with a former Palestinian militant.  The ex general was governor of the Occupied Territories; the former militant had fought for the Palestinian cause, was in prison for a long time and had victims among the members of his family.  And yet they met to speak about Christ.


What kind of impact can this have?


At a first glance it would not seem to have had any. One’s heart always seems to go no further than politics and war…. But all of these shattering events tend to fade into irrelevance because real life has its needs and urgencies, among which is hope.  At that meeting, everyone understood that we must change our course, our strategy and our language.  Even in a situation as difficult as Gaza, isolated from everything, even there is not only death but also people and groups that work for life.


This year Catholics and Orthodox share the same date for Easter….


In all honesty, from a strictly practical point of view, the difference in date between the Catholic and Orthodox celebrations was very useful: less pilgrims, less traffic, ceremonies in the Holy Sepulchre easier to arrange and more intimate.  From the human and spiritual point of view, it is wonderful that everybody is in the festive spirit, pleasantly excited. Moreover, Easter has a similar meaning for Jews and Christians – notwithstanding the obvious differences.  For the Jewish people it is the feast of their liberation, which is celebrated in the Seder. With celebrate the same passage in the Easter vigil.


Are there plans to share some celebrations with the Orthodox?


The celebrations will be rigorously separate, even if they take place at the same time.  It will be, by my own definition “a marvelous Babylon”. On Palm Sunday morning for example – we Latins celebrated before the shrine of the Holy Sepulchre; the Copts celebrated the same ceremony behind the shrine.  I don’t think the Copts heard a single word of what they were saying; we certainly couldn’t understand what we were saying…. All rites and use of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre follow the rules of the status quo to the letter, created in the late ‘700’s under the Ottoman Empire.   At the time the Easter vigil was celebrated on the Saturday morning.  And we still do so.  The ceremony of light takes place first for us and then for the Orthodox.


Christians in the Holy Land number less each year due to emigration. What is your mission?


Our mission is to remain here in these sites, which are sacred for all Christians.  The whole world is looking toJerusalem, but Jerusalem must look out on the entire Christian world.  We are here, we pray here and we are in union with all of the Church and for all of the Church.


We remind everyone that Easter is not only homage to pity, mourning at the tomb of death.  The Easter message is one of a new impulse to recognize the Face of the Lord, to break bread with Him, in order to break bread with every man, with every face we meet, there where there is the greatest need.