23 May 2019
In this image from 2017, Pope Francis at the Vatican addresses participants at an encounter marking the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The death penalty is "contrary to the Gospel," the pope said in his speech — echoing sentiments long expressed by Amnesty International. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
In CNEWA’s world, human rights are a constant concern. Freedom of religion, minority and women’s rights are constantly being challenged, if not violated, in one way or another throughout the world where we work and, indeed, the world in general.
Thus, an observance next week — which is fairly unheralded — is important for CNEWA and all people who are concerned with human rights. On Tuesday 28 May, the world observes Amnesty International Day. Most people have heard about Amnesty International and it is probably the largest and most active non-governmental human rights advocacy group in the world.
Amnesty, as it is commonly known, was founded in London in 1961 by Peter Benenson who had read about two students in Portugal who had been imprisoned for making a toast to freedom—something that did not sit well with the government of Antonio Salazar, Portugal’s dictator. Benenson and Eric Baker of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) published an article entitled “The Forgotten Prisoners” in The Observer in May of 1961 and Amnesty International was born.
From the outset, Amnesty has seen itself as advocate for the human rights enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Amnesty has been a particularly effective advocate for “prisoners of conscience,” i.e. those who are imprisoned for their faith or political beliefs. In 1977, Amnesty was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Long before it became an important point of discussion, Amnesty opposed capital punishment, which is considered the ultimate violation of human rights. Dictatorships and authoritarian governments often used capital punishment as a way of permanently silencing their opponents. In far too many places in the world, people the government finds unacceptable are executed without even having had a trial. Amnesty is constantly calling out countries for extrajudicial executions. Opposed in principle to capital punishment, Amnesty is always alert for situations in which people are not even granted a fair trial before they are killed.
The developing social teaching of the Catholic Church under the last three popes — John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis — has evolved to a point where the Catholic Church’s position of capital punishment is similar to that of Amnesty. On 11 October 2017 Pope Francis declared the death penalty to be “contrary to the Gospel.” He added that, “However grave the crime that may be committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it attacks the inviolability and the dignity of the person.” The following year, he revised the catechism to reflect that teaching. Using a slightly different theological hermeneutic, the pope closely approached the position of Amnesty.
After 50 years — and with over 7 million supporters —Amnesty International may very well be the largest and best- known human advocacy group in the world. However, its work is far from done. All over the world there remain prisoners of conscience and authoritarian governments who still find ways to kill people they find dangerous or inconvenient.
Amnesty Day may not be an observance of which many people are aware. However, for those working for peace and justice — not only in CNEWA’s world but in the entire world — it is a very important day.
Attention must be paid.
9 May 2019
Tags: Pope Francis United Nations
In this image from 2017, a man cries as he carries his daughter while walking from an ISIS-controlled part of Mosul toward Iraqi special forces soldiers. (photo: CNS/Goran Tomasevic, Reuters)
This week, the United Nations has a rather unusual observance, marking the Time of Remembrance and Reconciliation across two days, on 8 and 9 May.
On the surface, this commemoration does not look all that different from any number of days on which countries and peoples remember events of the past and the sacrifices made by their citizens in times of conflict. The UN Time of Remembrance and Reconciliation is, however, quite different. It was inaugurated by an act of the General Assembly on 22 November 2004. Recognizing that many countries had days that commemorated the victory of the Allies in World War II, the UN wanted to do something different: it wanted to remember everyone who died in World War II.
World War II had the highest casualties of any conflict in history. Although exact figures are difficult to come by, it is estimated that between 70 and 85 million human beings lost their lives. That alone makes World War II also the greatest human catastrophe in history.
By initiating this Time of Remembrance and Reconciliation, the UN is attempting to accomplish at least two things: first, to remember the horrors of war; and secondly, to work for reconciliation. The General Assembly document is clear. The horrors of World War II were the impetus for the founding of the UN. The very raison d’être of the UN was and remains to prevent war. In the UN Charter member nations are called to “make every effort to settle all disputes by peaceful means.” The bedrock on which the UN was founded was the horror of war. For the UN and its member states, war is never a solution, is never a good thing.
While the remembrances and memorials which most countries observe—we have Memorial Day later this month—are proper and good, the UN is making an important point. The horrors of World War II are fading in most people’s memory. The vast majority of the inhabitants of this planet were born long after the end of that war. With the fading of the memory of the horror of war often comes a fading of the commitment to avoid war at all costs. For far too many people, war is something that happens on a video screen or in another country. It is something the other people do in other places than our own. The idea of New York, London, Paris, Rome, etc. being leveled like Berlin in 1944 simply does not enter into the imagination of most people. We are shocked by natural disasters, but do not seem to realize that war is far worse and far more destructive than any natural disaster.
The UN Time of Remembrance and Reconciliation echoes what popes have been teaching for decades. Pope John XXIII published Pacem in terris (“Peace on Earth”) on 11 April 1963. Who can forget the impassioned plea of Pope Paul VI in his address to the UN General Assembly on 4 October 1965: “No more war, war never again!”? Since then, every pope has denounced war and called for just and peaceful solutions to the world’s conflicts. One cannot say their voices have been heard. Can it be because we have forgotten the horrors of war?
CNEWA works in places where people do not have to be reminded of the horrors of war. They experience it in their cities (Mosul, Raqqa and others), in their villages, their churches and their very bodies. As so many today play endless war games on cell phones and videos, the UN Time of Remembrance and Reconciliation reminds us that war is not a game. War is never as far away as we think. War is the worst of all possible solutions. The UN knows this; popes and the Catholic Church know this, and have consistently condemned war as a solution to anything.
Are we aware of this and do we agree?
26 April 2019
Tags: Iraq United Nations
In this image from several years ago, Macedonian worshipers greet Easter with lighted candles at St. Nikolai Church in Ohrid on Holy Saturday — which many there will observe this weekend.
(photo: Sean Sprague)
Around the world, many Christians are still preparing to celebrate Easter this weekend. A few years ago, I posted this piece to help explain why:
At present the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches calculate the date of Easter differently than the Orthodox churches. This results in both sets of Christian churches often having different dates for Easter. The bishops believed that all Christians celebrating Easter on the same day would be a sign of Christian unity.
When I was asked to write on this, I thought that there were some deep theological differences involved. Research into the topic made me realize that I was in the exciting area of “things I thought I knew but didn’t.” To understand more, you have to start at the beginning — the very beginning.
I know that the Gospels are not in total agreement about the date of the Last Supper. The Synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke) see the Last Supper taking place on the first day of Passover, which began at sundown on Thursday. John, on the other hand, sees the Last Supper taking place on the evening before Passover, which according to John would have begun Friday at sunset. I was aware of a group of Christians in the early church called the “Quattuordecimans” (“Fourteeners”) who celebrated Easter on the 14th of Nisan, the same day Jews celebrated Passover. For the Quattuordecimans, Easter could fall on any day of the week. Most Christians, however, celebrated Easter on the Sunday after Passover. There were some controversies between the two groups. The Council of Nicea (325), however, settled the matter and decreed that Easter would be on the first Sunday after the first full moon of the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere. The date of the equinox, with some slight astronomical inaccuracy, was determined as 21 March.
It would seem, then, that the question was solved in 325. What was the problem? The problem was not based on a deep, theological or mystical difference. The problem was based on an astronomical calculation: the length of the calendar year.
Read on to understand more about why there are two dates for Easter.
And to our Eastern and Orthodox siblings: Have a blessed and happy Easter this Sunday!
23 April 2019
Tags: Easter Eastern Catholic Churches
A woman weeps during a memorial service for victims in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on 23 April 2019, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island.
(photo: CNS/Dinuka Liyanawatte, Reuters)
The liturgies of Holy Week are filled with references to Jesus as the Suffering Servant of God. The reference is to four poems in the book of Isaiah that speak of a mysterious “servant of God.” In the fourth poem (Isa 52:13-53:12), when harshly dealt with, the servant “bore it humbly, never opening his mouth he was like a lamb led to the slaughter house.” The servant ultimately is abused and killed for the sins and transgressions of all. This image of Jesus as the non-violent suffering servant of God is rooted deep in Christian theology and piety.
We see it again in the Gospels. When an armed crowd comes to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, one of his followers strikes out with a sword of his own, severing the ear of the High Priest’s servant. Jesus rebukes his follower and states “those who take up the sword, die by the sword” (Matt 26:53). Throughout the Passion narratives, in the face of incredibly cruel violence, Jesus remains the non-violent victim.
All this makes the tragic events of this past Sunday all the more poignant and powerful.
This year on Easter Sunday, almost 400 people were killed in Sri Lanka. Most of them were celebrating the Resurrection — the victory of the non-violent Christ. Terrorists targeted Christians as they worshipped — that is, as they were united with their Lord who had been mishandled, beaten and crucified, who did not respond to violence with violence and was victorious. Like the Jesus they were worshipping, the victims of the attack were non-violent innocent people.
Anger is a normal, human reaction. Anger directed towards violence, oppression and injustice can be a good thing. But it is very easy for anger, especially in the face of such brutal and senseless violence, to become rage and a drive for revenge. That is entirely understandable. The rage of those who lost loved ones must be understood and, to some extent, felt.
But at times like these, we Christians face our greatest challenge: will we opt to be violent like Pilate or non-violent like Christ?
It must never be forgotten that, after having endured hatred, violence and death, the risen Christ brings to the world a message not of revenge but peace.
The true mystery of Easter is that violence, brutality, death and power are not victorious. Rather, weakness, humility and non-violence overwhelm violence, conquering it with life and goodness.
There is something deadening and horrifying about what happened in Sri Lanka. However, it is by no means something with which Christians are unfamiliar. Violence has been directed against us since the time of our Lord; it has been with us since the beginning. Since that time there has always been an understandable temptation towards revenge. However, the risen Suffering Servant constantly and inconveniently reminds us of the divine power of non-violence.
It may be tempting at times like this to call for retribution and vengeance. But the words of Paul ring clear: “Never repay evil with evil but let everyone see you are concerned on with that which is good….never try to get revenge (leave that to God)….Resist evil and conquer it with good” (Rom 12:17-21).
It is the belief in the overwhelming power of non-violence over violence, rooted in the Resurrection of the non-violent Christ, that makes us who we are — or definitely who we should be.
11 April 2019
One of the most revered Desert Mothers was St. Mary of Egypt. She is depicted in this painting from the 16th century.
(image: Wikimedia/by Jacopo Tintoretto/Scuola Grande di San Rocco)
For more than 90 years, Catholic Near East Welfare Association has worked to be a beacon of hope — beginning in the Near East, then spreading to Africa, Central Europe and India. Through the generosity and commitment of its donors, CNEWA has brought help and hope to countless Christians and non-Christians in the world who otherwise would have had neither hope nor future.
Ninety years is a long time and the world has changed a great deal in that time. There have been two world wars, countries and even empires have come and gone; ideologies have sprung up, flourished and been replaced by new ideologies.
And yet so often things seem depressingly the same. The poor and innocent remain victims of war and oppression. The geography and the actors may change but it seems that the script remains relatively constant: war, refugees, famine, and migration. For nearly a century, CNEWA has struggled to deal with these almost intractable issues.
Charitable organizations such as CNEWA, whose work is dependent of the generosity of donors, often speak of “donor fatigue.” Donor fatigue is a very real thing. Even the most committed and generous donors can be excused if they wonder if their generosity is making a difference. The problems of the world can be overwhelming. Do their gifts make the world a better, safer, more just place? The questions are real and they are valid.
In thinking about these questions, I found some answers in an unexpected place: the desert.
As many know, CNEWA works with the Eastern churches--both Catholic and Orthodox. These churches date back to the time of the apostles and have rich traditions which are often unknown to Christians in the West. For example, Christians in the West are familiar with monasticism but almost exclusively in its western (Benedictine) form. They are unaware of a much older monastic tradition that existed centuries before St. Benedict in the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East.
Holy people went into the desert to live a life of prayer and penance as hermits. They often attracted followers and disciples and wrote treatises on the spiritual life. A body of literature exists consisting of the writings of these “Desert Fathers.” More recently and very happily, research has uncovered a tradition of the “Desert Mothers” as well — women who lived as hermits, had disciples and left behind “sayings” and writings.
In their aphorisms and writings, the Desert Fathers and Mothers spoke extensively of the spiritual life — the things which promoted it and things which damaged it. They wrote of virtues and vices and were the predecessors of the great medieval theologians. Many of the Desert Fathers and Mothers contributed to the development of the notion of the ”seven deadly sins”: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, pride, anger and envy.
However, these men and women also wrote about what they called acedia. For the Desert Fathers and Mothers acedia was the most frightening vice of all. Acedia was the root of all vice and the opposite of all virtues. The word acedia means “not to care.” It is the state in which nothing matters. It lacks the violence of anger, the obnoxiousness of pride and envy, the prurience of lust. Nor does it evoke the guilt those vices do. Acedia, in fact, evokes nothing but indifference.
Acedia is the deep feeling that one can no longer make a difference. There is neither joy in doing good, nor guilt at doing nothing. But as time has gone on, one almost never hears of acedia any more. It is often weakly translated as “sloth.” That is, I suspect, a loss.
Faced with a world of overwhelming—and seemingly insoluble—problems, it is understandable that we get tempted to shut down. It is human to think, “I just cannot afford to care.”
It is precisely here that CNEWA takes up the ancient challenge of those holy Desert Mothers and Fathers. CNEWA reminds us that caring, hoping and believing—sometimes against the odds—matters.
At bottom, this is our call as Christians.
Believing that we can and do make a real difference is at the center of what it means to be followers of Jesus — and, by extension, distant descendents of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.
7 February 2019
Pope Francis meets Sheikh Ahmad al Tayyeb during his visit to the U.A.E. earlier this week.
(photo: Vatican Media)
On Sunday 3 February Pope Francis made history, when he began a three-day visit to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) and became the first pope to visit the overwhelmingly Muslim Arabian Peninsula. The visit coincided with an interfaith meeting of religious leaders and theologians which was taking place.
The pope was greeted by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed al Nahyan. The U.A.E. are home to a large number of Christians from south Asia who are working there. For several years the government has had a Ministry of Tolerance; Christians for the most part are able to worship freely, although not publicly. The U.A.E. is one of the more tolerant and open countries in the region.
While words like “unprecedented” are often used in the context of what Pope Francis does — and while such words tend to get overused and with inflation comes devaluation — one result of the visit, nevertheless, stands out in a special way. Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmad al Tayyeb, the head of Al Azhar University, arguably the premier Sunni Muslim university in the world, produced a common document entitled Human Fraternity. It is a landmark document in many ways. While popes and Muslim leaders have made similar calls for peace and justice, this is unique in that it is a joint call, signed by the two men.
People familiar with reading statements of religious leaders recognize a certain “style” of writing peculiar to different traditions. Human Fraternity, however, is unique in that it evidences not only a “Catholic” style of writing but also a “Muslim” style of writing. It was and is intended to be both a Muslim and Catholic statement.
And this is especially significant: there is something new happening in the ecumenical and interreligious movements that can be seen at work in Human Fraternity. The Ecumenical and interreligious movements have been part of the central mission of the Catholic Church since Vatican II (1962-1965). In the decades following the council, there was tremendous progress made in the official dialogues between the Catholic Church and other churches and religions. Several “convergence” documents have been agreed upon, and in 1999 the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church published A Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The Doctrine of Justification was the primary theological point of difference between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Reformers in the 16th century.
Yet for all the tremendous progress made on the theological level, by the 1990’s one began to hear of an “ecumenical winter” — or at the very least, ecumenical doldrums. It seemed to many that the incredible progress made through dialogue had not been translated into a change of attitudes. To many, it seemed that something was missing; on so many levels, it appeared that little had really changed.
But Pope Francis, merely by his presence and his approach, appears to be causing a noticeable shift.
One of the outstanding things about Francis’ various encounters is that there is — though it may be overlooked — a genuine sense of friendship and affection between the pope and his dialogue partners. This is most evident in the relationship between Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. It is very obvious that they like and trust each other; they are friends. This has led to extraordinary cooperation between the two leaders and their churches in areas of ecology, human rights, refugees and immigration. Both are very smart men. They realize that friendship and trust alone will not overcome the divisions between the churches.
They also realize, however, that all the convergence statements and joint declarations remain merely pieces of paper if trust and affection are lacking between the churches and their leaders.
This brings us to this week’s historic meeting. One can see a similar phenomenon between Pope Francis and Sheikh al Tayyeb. Al Azhar University broke off relations with the Holy See in 2011 after Pope Benedict XVI’s statement on the situation of Coptic Christians. Relations between the Holy See and Al Azhar were resumed under Pope Francis. The pope and the sheikh have met several times and it is clear that a warm and cordial relationship has developed between them.
Neither man, of course, is naïve about issues dividing Catholics and Muslims. However, both have achieved a level of trust that allows them to cooperate on a document which is at once truly Catholic — and truly Muslim.
Much of CNEWA’s work, of course, involves work among Muslims, especially in the Middle East. Witnessing this historic moment, with its spirit of cooperation and collaboration, is both an inspiration and a beacon of hope.
And it should serve as a sign to us all. Pope Francis has shown that theological ecumenism is not dead, but that it needs the human components of trust and friendship to transform theological papers into living documents that can change lives and help make our world a better, safer place.
31 January 2019
Tags: Pope Francis Ecumenism Muslim Abu Dhabi
In this image from 2016, Pope Francis greets a Buddhist monk during a an audience with religious leaders at the Vatican. (photo: CNS/L'Osservatore Romano)
On Friday 1 February, the UN begins the observance of Interfaith Harmony Week. No one knows better than CNEWA how important interfaith harmony is and how difficult it is to achieve. Many of the places where we work are the scene of discrimination and outright persecution, not only of Christians but of other believers. In Iraq and parts of Syria Christians, Yazidis, Shabak and others have been massacred by the Islamic State. Egypt is the scene of ongoing sporadic violence against all types of Coptic Christians. In India there has been an increase in violence against Christians. There has, of course, been a long tradition of violence between Christians and Muslims in northern India.
Over the years, the Pew Research Center has documented persecution of and discrimination against all faith groups. The situation throughout the world is not getting better. One of the more disturbing findings is that most of the persecution and discrimination occurs in countries with some type of religious marker in their self-identification. Looked at in the broadest of terms, Pew’s record of religious persecution and discrimination is a record of one religious group behaving badly against another religious group.
It is very important to avoid two extremes here. One extreme would blame religion for all the persecution and conflict in the word. The other extreme is for religions to excuse themselves and to declare that their members who are acting violently against others are “politically” motivated and not really good believers. This is becoming increasingly untenable morally. Very few conflicts are purely political, purely economic or purely religious. Most often, they are a mixture of all three. However, it has been shown that conflicts that have a religious element tend to be more intractable and more difficult to solve than those lacking a religious element. Religions can provide powerful symbols which can demonize the other and rend compromise something akin to apostasy.
No religion is free of these tendencies to discriminate or even persecute. In Muslim majority countries, we find violence by Muslims against religious minorities. The Muslim Rohingyas of Burma are suffering greatly at the hand of Burmese Buddhists, a religion which supposedly values non-violence. In India Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians are often involved in persecution and conflict. In Russia, non-Orthodox Christians are legally discriminated against by fellow Christians who are orthodox.
On 31 March 2005, at the opening of the Exhibit of the World’s Religions at Santa Clara University in California, the famous German theologian Hans Küng made a statement which has been repeated hundreds of times and which perfectly encapsulates the meaning and importance of World Interfaith Harmony Week: “There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the nations.”
This is a truth which CNEWA experiences every day in the places where we work. Interfaith dialogue leading to interfaith understanding, harmony and cooperation has also been a constant teaching of popes since the Second Vatican Council. St. John Paul II even made interfaith dialogue a key part of his very first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, (The Redeemer of Man), when he wrote about the legacy of Vatican II in 1979:
“The Fathers of the Church rightly saw in the various religions as it were so many reflections of the one truth, ‘seeds of the Word,’ attesting that, though the routes taken may be different, there is but a single goal to which is directed the deepest aspiration of the human spirit as expressed in its quest for God and also in its quest, through its tending towards God, for the full dimension of its humanity, or in other words for the full meaning of human life. The Council gave particular attention to the Jewish religion, recalling the great spiritual heritage common to Christians and Jews. It also expressed its esteem for the believers of Islam, whose faith also looks to Abraham.”
We need to take these words to heart; they help remind us that working for interfaith harmony is part of what it means to be a Catholic in the 21st century.
24 January 2019
Tags: Muslim Jews Interfaith
Pope Francis remembered the Holocaust and honored its victims with a visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in 2016 (video: CNS)
This year on Sunday 27 January, the world observes Holocaust Remembrance Day. Different from the Jewish observance of Yom HaShoah, The Day of the Holocaust (this year on 2 May), Holocaust Remembrance Day is the result of a UN resolution on 1 November 2005. It chose 27 January for the observance because it was also the 60th anniversary of the liberation Auschwitz-Birkenau, the notorious Nazi extermination camp, on 27 January 1945. In the resolution, the UN recognized the horror of the Nazi extermination program which killed 6 million Jews, 5 million Slavs, 3 million Poles and over a half million more “undesirables.”
Figures like this are almost impossible for the human mind to comprehend. It has been said that the human mind can visualize nine as three rows of three. Beyond that visualization becomes more and more difficult. The number 14 million simply cannot be visualized. It is something like the complete annihilation of New York, London or Tokyo. The suffering which that involves overloads the human capacity for compassion and we tend to shut down. That is why the UN Holocaust Remembrance Day is so important: it reminds the world not merely of the horrors of which we are capable but of the horrors which we have actually committed.
Every generation creates its own vocabulary. The experience of the 20th century resulted in the word "megadeath." Between the beginning of World War I in 1914 and the end of the “killing fields” of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1979, it is estimated that over 135 million human beings were killed. Jews, Armenians, Slavs, Gypsies, Ukrainian peasants, soldiers, Cambodian intellectuals and others were killed in numbers that stagger the imagination. Megadeath had become a reality. Technology has been harnessed and used with incredible effectiveness to kill tens of millions of people.
In CNEWA’s world this has been a tragic, almost unbearably cruel fact of life. The Middle East was, especially between the two World Wars, the scene of numerable massacres of tens of thousands of people at a time. One of the things that deeply motivated Fr. Paul Wattson to co-found CNEWA was precisely the suffering of millions of Christians in Armenia, Turkey and the Middle East.
It is easier for the human psyche, even the psyche of a compassionate person, to forget the horror of megadeath than to deal with it. But wise people know that forgetting is a dangerous thing. Forgetting allows the horror to fade and, when the horror fades, the will to prevent that horror from reoccurring also fades.
The UN is acutely aware of this. When Auschwitz-Birkenau becomes a faded memory, expressions like “some Nazis are good people” move into the field of acceptable speech. When anti-Semitism, xenophobia and racism edge towards the center of our societies and threaten to become “mainstream,” the overwhelming evil of megadeath begins to lose its horror; we and our leaders begin to believe that there are worse things than total war. The UN knows this is wrong. Popes throughout the 20th and 21st centuries know this is wrong and have continued to forcefully call for peace and justice.
UN Holocaust Remembrance Day reminds the world of the evil we have done. This day challenges us to face the horror of megadeath and to realize that it must not happen again—ever or anywhere.
17 January 2019
In this image from 2018, Pope Francis, surrounded by clergy of different Christian traditions, holds an icon as he exchanges gifts with students of the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Institute at Bossey near Geneva. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
In all of the countries where CNEWA works, from India to the Horn of Africa, Christians will be observing the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Catholics of the Latin and Eastern rites, as well as Orthodox Christians, will pray for the unity of the followers of Christ. This week is especially important for CNEWA because it was initiated 101 years ago by the Rev. Paul Wattson, S.A., who happens also to be one of the co-founders of CNEWA.
The theme for 2019 was chosen by Christians in Indonesia and is taken from Deuteronomy 16:20: “Justice, only justice, you shall pursue.” By choosing the theme of justice, Indonesian Christians wanted to make an important point. Living as they do in the most populous Muslim country in the world, they are acutely aware of two things. First, they realize that they are not only a minority but a divided minority. Many different churches with their believers can be found on the Indonesia archipelago. They realize that their divisions weaken the power of their witness in an overwhelmingly non-Christian environment. And secondly, they are aware of the importance of justice both for themselves and others.
The whole notion of Christian Unity can understandably come across as a rather “churchy” thing that deals with ancient doctrines, rituals, and controversies which many modern people no longer understand and hostilities which many Christians find scandalous. The struggle for Christian Unity can appear to be a rather inward- looking affair, disconnected from the world at large.
The theme of justice, however, adds an important element to the quest for Christian Unity. Unity does not merely look inward; it is profoundly related to the world. All Christians see the Gospel of Jesus as transforming the world. Christians have never and can never be indifferent to the problems we all face: war, oppression, violence, racism, hatred, poverty, etc. The biblical call to justice is a call to Christians to work together to overcome these problems and to transform the world into the Kingdom of God.
The regions in which CNEWA works experience all these challenges. In dealing with the problems mentioned above, we work closely with the different local churches—both Catholic and Orthodox—in service to people who are vulnerable and suffering.
When our efforts are scattered and divided, when there is even competition between churches, the task of seeking justice in our world is significantly weakened. By stressing justice this year, the ideal of Christian Unity is put into a very important context. Christian Unity is not seen primarily in the context of overcoming ancient controversies. Rather Christian Unity is seen in the context of service to the world.
The pursuit of justice to which all Christians are called is weakened and even compromised by our divisions. If Christians see their God-given calling as serving the world and transforming it into the Kingdom of God, we must work to remove any obstacles that make that calling harder to fulfill.
The Christians of Indonesia have given us all a challenge in the theme for the 2019 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity—a challenge both ancient and new: ”Justice, only justice shall you pursue.”
10 January 2019
Tags: Ecumenism Christian Unity Orthodox
Vested in silks and damask, Ethiopia's clergy mark Epiphany with a distinctive liturgy, a reminder of how different countries and cultures have adapted this feast as their own.
(photo: Asrat Habte Mariam)
The Christmas season is composed of several feasts which recount the beginnings of the life of Jesus and his ministry as an adult. Christmas recalls his birth; his baptism is celebrated at the end of the season.
But in the middle of the season is Epiphany. It was celebrated on the Christian calendar last Sunday, 6 January.
Epiphany is built around the account of the visit of the Magi which appears in the Gospel of Matthew and only the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew provides little or no information about this visit. We are told that wise men (magoi) came from the East. We are not told where in the East they came from or even how many there were; but since magoi is plural, Matthew indicates there were more than one. Different traditions count as many as 14, but the common number three is deduced from the gifts—no one came empty-handed.
The lack of details around this event makes it easy to attach popular traditions to it. And we see that in CNEWA’s world, where the celebrations of the Epiphany in the Middle East, in Ethiopia and in southern India are very different. While these traditions are celebrating the same event, they often do so in strikingly different and colorful ways.
The very diversity of the ways Epiphany is celebrated is a sign that Matthew has succeeded very well in what he attempted to do with his rather sparse account: he made the coming of Jesus an event with universal implications and applications. At its heart, this event, Epiphany, tells of an event that builds bridges and breaks down barriers.
It occurs against an interesting backdrop.
It is generally accepted that Matthew was writing for a community of Jews who had become followers of Jesus. As one would expect, they brought their Jewish traditions with them: the Torah, the notion of the chosen people, etc. As Christianity grew, tensions arose. Paul of Tarsus, in particular, attracted a large number of converts from paganism. While Matthew’s readers might expect the converts from paganism — for all practical purposes — to become observant Jews, that was not what Paul did. His converts to Christianity from paganism did not practice circumcision and did not follow the Law of Moses.
At the time of Jesus—and to some extent even today—religions tended to be culturally and linguistically specific. Even though the Greek and Roman cultures were very similar (even worshipping some of the same gods), the “Roman gods” had different names than the “Greek gods.” This reminds us that the major religions of the ancient world were both the source and result of the cultures in which they arose. Because of this, missionary endeavors were extremely rare, if not non-existent, in the pre-Christian world. It was simply assumed that one adhered to the religion of the culture into which they were born. Of course, there were borrowings and “cross pollination,” but the boundaries were clear and, for the most part, accepted.
The idea that a faith would not only be open to but would actively attract people from all cultures and nations was a new and strange one. It was an idea that many of Matthew’s readers would have found very hard to accept — and would have made Christianity difficult to embrace. But Matthew is the ideal teacher. His Gospel is a model of inclusion. If Jewish shepherds are the first to visit the newborn Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, it is the mysterious Magi who play the role of the first visitors in Matthew.
It is important also to note that in neither Gospel are we dealing with a mere visit, a social call. Whether it is the angels in Luke or the star and the dream in Matthew, these “visits” are also an epiphany, a “shining forth,” a revelation.
We know very, very little about the Magi. One thing, however, is certain: they were not Jews. They were foreigners. For Matthew, the first revelation is to the Gentiles. The Messiah was not born for a specific culture, a specific language, much less a specific nation. The Messiah is sent to all humanity.
Tribalism is a natural human characteristic. We tend to gather with those like us. God is “our God.” But the message of Matthew is clear. To see Jesus as the Messiah of any one group, one culture—to say nothing of one nation—is not to see Jesus at all, but merely to see a reflection of our own fears and prejudices.
We need to remember during this time of new beginnings, and the start of a new year, this salient truth: Epiphany means “to shine forth.” It is a movement outward not inward. The Epiphany is the rejection of all racial, cultural or national supremacy or chauvinism. It is a message of inclusion and, even, of hope.
Matthew helps underscore that point with his account of the epiphany. The writer of this Gospel makes sure that the Messiah is Emmanuel, Hebrew for “God-with-us,” and that the “us” in Emmanuel excludes no one of good will.
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