Five years ago, after Easter in 2010, I documented the Holy Fire celebrations in Jerusalem in the pages of ONE magazine.
Every year since then, I pull my treasured hard copy and re-read the story to compare it to the reality of the current Easter, only to find that the story hasn’t really changed. The same difficulties are encountered every year, as more restrictions are imposed and freedom of access to the holy sites seems to become more of a luxury rather than a right. With each passing year, our prayer is that the situation does not get worse. We have been accustomed to having more military and police officers with full gear in the church courtyard, roof, and inside the Holy Sepulchre itself; in fact, they outnumber the worshipers. That in itself is shameful. I do not believe there is any other place on earth where you see so many arms inside a church as is the case in our treasured Holy Sepulchre during the Holy Fire celebration on Holy Saturday. The saddest part of all is that all these measures have nothing to do with the security or public safety.
The situation in our larger Middle East is no more rosy, with the Arab Spring in many countries turning into an Arab nightmare, especially for most minority groups, including the Christians, among others. Where is all this leading is anyone’s guess. How many Christians will remain and how many will lose hope and decide to move on? How many will have the opportunity to move on and how many will be stuck? How many will be killed and how many persecuted? How many will become refugees? All are questions that remain unanswered, but given the trends of the past few years, it is hard to be optimistic.
Having presented a few thoughts for consideration as we mark Holy Week, I want to highlight the positive. We who are the indigenous Christians of the Holy Land and the larger Middle East are not here by chance. We have a long and proud history full of accomplishments and contributions. Our Christian institutions are our pride, as thousands of them throughout our region continue to provide quality services to all segments of society — especially in education, healthcare and social services. During wars and crisis, our institutions are the first responders and a model for coexistence, respect, care, love and support to those who in need.
The social service initiatives of the church never existed to support only Christians, and we never will. Our teachings mandate us to respect others and treat everyone equally, and demand a full life with dignity to all children of God. Thus, during this Easter season, we are reminded again of the dramatic events surrounding our Savior’s life, death and resurrection on the streets of Jerusalem over 2,000 years ago, and we are again reminded that the Master never really had an easy life himself. He taught us how to give rather than take, to be there for the weak and poor — very much the path followed by our Christian institutions. Over 2,000 years have passed, and the story is repeated again and again, and thus if we continue to face difficulties and hardships, if our life appears bleak at times, if we suffer for various reasons, we only need to look back and be reminded how blessed we are to call this Holy Land home and to continue to walk in in Christ’s footsteps.
Five years ago, I concluded my article in ONE with these words:
“Finally, I look forward to the day when my youngest son, Michael, grows strong enough to carry the banner, and I can pass onto him the honor of carrying it on Holy Saturday. My father passed the honor onto me, and I have already passed it onto my eldest son, Rami. When the days come that I no longer carry the banner, but my sons do so in my place, I will know I have done what I could to keep the tradition and faith alive. Maybe peace will have prevailed in the Holy Land and the celebration will return to how it should be — free.”
Well, five years since writing the article, peace has not prevailed. And the celebrations are not free. But my youngest son, Michael, is now 14, which was my age back in 1974, when my dad took me for the first time to attend the Holy Fire celebration, thus beginning my own journey to carry the cherished banner every year and be blessed with that honor. It is my intention to introduce Michael to this family tradition this year — in the hope that in another 40 years, he may in turn introduce his youngest child, and the tradition will go on!
Let us all keep the faith and hope alive. Happy Easter to all, far and near!