Participating in the Passion: Reflections on Frans and Easter

April 7th, 2015 marks the one-year anniversary of the death of Father Frans van der Lugt, a Dutch Jesuit priest who was murdered during Syria’s civil war after living there for over fifty years. I’ve already written much about Frans in the year since his death, but on this occasion, I’d like to reflect on his life in light of the great Easter mysteries that Christians continue to celebrate this week.

Frans lived Easter. It wasn’t something he simply remembered and celebrated; he embodied it.

Frans van der Lugt
Frans van der Lugt

“I want share in their suffering with them,” he said in a YouTube video as bombs echoed behind him through Homs’ ravaged Old City, “in their sadness, their fear, their suffering, and their death. I want to be in the hearts of the people, until I move with them from loss and hardship to a new horizon.”

Frans understood what many of us fail to realize: that Easter isn’t simply about what Jesus did, but what Christ calls us to do.

Substitution or participation?

Many Christians understand the events of Easter as “substitutionary” or “vicarious” atonement. They see Jesus’ Passion and death as something God accomplished long ago to save us from our own personal sins. But this view, which I grew up with, misses the point. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus summons his friends to walk the path to Calvary with him, to follow his example and participate in the world’s suffering.

During the Last Supper, Jesus does not tell his disciples that they will get off the hook. He does not promise them cushy lives won by his brutal death. He does not pass “get out of jail free” cards around the table, but rather hands them the bread that is his body, and the wine that is his blood. To truly save humanity from the sin and suffering that plague creation, he tells us, we must become his Body and mirror his self-sacrificing love.

This call to participation is most powerfully demonstrated when Jesus washes the feet of his apostles in John’s Gospel. After rubbing the dirt and sand off their feet—a task usually reserved for slaves—Jesus says,

Sieger Köder's depiction of Jesus washing Peter's feet.
Sieger Köder’s depiction of Jesus washing Peter’s feet.

“Do you realize what I have done for you?
You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am.

If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet,
you ought to wash one another’s feet.
I have given you a model to follow,
so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” (John 13: 12-15)

This view of Christ’s Passion, which is referred to as “participatory atonement” by theologians, recognizes that Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary is incomplete if we are not participants in it ourselves. This interpretation, which was developed by the early Church Fathers, says that our at-one-ment with God is accomplished if we, along with Jesus, radically give of ourselves to others by accepting the suffering of the most vulnerable, the most hated, and the most marginalized.

Frans’ motto: “Let’s move forward”

Frans must have understood Jesus’ Passion as something in which he was called to take part. Otherwise, he would have left Syria when he had the chance. But he refused to leave the besieged and blockaded city of Homs. Instead, he shared food with the starving, even though he was near starving himself. He visited those who were suffering and lent them a kind ear. He engaged with rival warring factions, and called everyone “brother,” even his masked murderer.

A powerful painting by artist Farid Jirjis depicting Frans' murder and Jesus' crucifixion.
A powerful painting recently posted on the Facebook page of the Jesuit Residence in Homs. It depicts Frans’ murder and Jesus’ crucifixion.

It seems appropriate, then, that we mark Frans’ death during our celebration of Easter, when we recall how death is somehow transformed into new life. In the wake of his murder, the Muslim and Christian communities he cared for have grown stronger and more connected. Cross-continental friendships that were forged over social media to memorialize his legacy are already producing bountiful fruit. I’m fortunate to have been a part of this international community, which emerged spontaneously last year and which continues spread Frans’ message of peace and musharika.

Mushaaraka, a word Frans used often to describe the relationships he saw in Syria, is hard to translate into English. “Sharing” and “partnership” get close; “communion” gets closer. Mushaaraka is about “participation in the life of another,” about stooping down and washing another’s feet.

As we enter into our Easter season, we thank God for the life and example of Frans, and stand up on our newly washed feet, ready to “move forward.”

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For more about the life of Frans, check out the following links:

-My essay, “Why I Cried in Arabic Class,” which was republished at Millennial Journal.
-“Forty Days Later and Fr. Frans,” an article by Jesuit Paddy Gilger, which features my artwork.
-Reflections on Frans’s life by Fr. Louis Taoutel (Video in English)
-A compilation of interviews with Frans during the siege of Homs (Video in Arabic)
-A documentary on Frans’ important projects: the Ard Center and his interreligious hike (Video in Arabic)
-A slideshow of images of Frans with the people of Homs (Video in French)

The Paschal Paradox

In a world full of suffering and violence, we are given this truth at Easter:

Al-Masihu qama min bain al-amwat,
Wa wati al-mouta bil-mout,
Wa wahab al-hayata lil-lethina fil qubour.

Christ has risen from the dead.
In dying, he trampled death,
And gifted life to those who were in the tomb.

We still do feel the sting of death, and we still experience the pain of suffering. But we know how much God loves us, that he is here with us, right in the midst of it.

For that reason we always, always, always have hope.

Why I cried in Arabic class

Though the conflict in Syria is raging less than 50 miles away from my home in Amman and the effects of the war can be seen and felt in countless ways throughout the country, I have lacked much of any emotional reaction to the horrific humanitarian, cultural, and environmental destruction that is occurring just beyond Jordan’s northern border. I think this is a pretty natural human response, to become numb to news of the ‘same old’ tragedies we hear bits and pieces about everyday.

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The news of Fr. Frans van der Lugt’s assassination—and the emerging stories about his prophetic ministry and witness—is what shook me out of my emotional apathy about the Syrian conflict. It’s not Fr. Frans’ European background and white face that makes his death so striking. Rather, what makes his murder so salient is that despite his apparent otherness (and his opportunity to escape) he decided to accept the same fate as his adopted Syrian family, with whom he’d lived almost fifty years.

Martyr and missionary

Many people have already written essays about Fr. Frans, who “liked ice cream and Zen and hiking retreats with Mass and reflections.” Particularly moving pieces are “What Martrydom Means” and “A Man of Peace.” These accounts and remembrances describe a life of complete service of and total communion with the people of Syria. The more I read about this Jesuit missionary, the more I am convinced that he is a true example for our time, a modern day prophet who reminds us by his life and death of the complete self-giving Passion of our Savior.

He has been called “a martyr for interreligious dialogue.” He founded Al-Ard (which means, “The Land”), “an organization that cares for the mentally handicapped and provides one of the rare spaces where the three Abrahamic religions can come together and pray.” He was also famous for his eight-day maseer, a retreat/pilgrimage/hike, in which he led Christians and Muslims in Zen meditation. The Jesuits in Homs also hosted a social club and a bread baking operation for the needy.

What I hope to share here is a translation of an Arabic-language video Fr. Frans recorded, which I’ve translated into English with the help of my Arabic tutor. Fr. Frans recorded many of these videos, talking not only about the plight of his starving and wounded community, which has experienced a blockade for nearly two years. I chose to translate a video in which he describes the “communal” or “sharing” spirit of the Syrian people.

The translation is below. You can see the original video at this link. Notice how Fr. Frans continues chattering away as bombs drop incessantly nearby.

Hello! I want to talk to you about my experience with the Syrian people whom I love so much. I came to Syria in 1966 and I came to know the people through many activities and different fields. First through the schools, camping and hiking trips, and later I got to know them through psychological assistance, yoga and Zen Buddhist meditation, and through the ‘Ard Project (‘ard means “land” in Arabic), a countryside development program, and after that through the Spiritual Exercises, lectures, meetings with different groups, meetings with individuals, and visits to people. 

Thanks to this presence, I came to really love the Syrian people. I took part in beautiful things and I received the abundance and generosity of the people! Now we see a people who are really tormented, and with them I share in their treasure and in their sadness, their fear, their pain, and their death. The communion is about being present, connections, and closeness, and because of this I want to be in the heart of the people, until I move with you from hardship and loss to a new horizon—from fear to peace, sadness to joy, and death to life. I want to be with the people in the bosom of these circumstances even as we face together the labor pains, the passage, and the new birth.

If someone asks me, “Why do you love the Syrian people? What do you love in them?” I say “I love so many things about this people. Really beautiful qualities.” So I thought in these sessions (video clips) I will talk about “What do you find in the Syrian people that you like?” Today I want to talk a bit about the spirit of sharing and communion that exists in the heart of the Syria people. They like to share with others what they are living.

First we’ll look at what is around us [in our neighborhoods]. We see a mother in hard circumstances, she is cooking, but she doesn’t cook only for her own family. She is also thinking about others! After they eat they send half of the food to others, a gesture done without pretentiousness or condescension, and without feeling like “you owe me because of what I’ve given you.” No, with simplicity. 

The second thing is if we are taking a trip, and the people we meet are also living in hard circumstances and they don’t have much in the house. But we notice that they always keep something in the house for a guest. It is impossible not to give the guest something better than you what you have for yourself. They always give the guest the best of what they have. Sometimes on trips, they tell us about their pain and suffering, but always after the question they ask is, “And you, how are you?!” They love to share also the things that you are living! They can be at the peak of their own pain and still be open to the other and being together with them. 

We discover the willingness to share in our daily life, but we discovered this willingness even more in our trips and hikes outside! For example, [during a trip on foot,] we enter an orchard. And on our trips we do not allow our participants to take fruit from the trees. But sometimes, the owner of the orchard comes, and he invites us in sharing. He says: “A hundred welcomes! Here you go, young people! Eat! And a thousand ‘healths’ to you! The orchard is yours! The property is God’s [not mine].” He’s not annoyed that they ate his fruit, but he’s happy. He’s happy because he offered this opportunity to share, and he is happy to see them happy. He doesn’t think of money and he doesn’t count the cost, but he lives a partnership which is innate, brotherly, and unguarded, which flows like water from a spring. After they leave, he does not say “Thank God they left! I wish they’d never come or never been born!” No one in our society has this attitude. I’ve never heard anything like this.

For today, this is enough. We will continue talking about this sharing spirit of the Syrian people another time. 

The “Most Generous”

This Syrian spirit of generosity is not just one I learned listening to Fr. Frans’ accounts. I have also learned it from my tutor, who himself is Syrian—from Homs—and whose name means “the most generous” in Arabic. Every day I walk into class he offers me tea (which I usually accept) and he even helped my roommate and I find our current apartment. It’s thanks to him that I’ve progressed considerably in the spoken dialect, and he can’t be blamed for the fact that, like Fr. Frans, I still often mix up gender agreement of nouns and adjectives.

As we listened to and reflected on Fr. Frans’ poetic language about the Syrian people, my teacher began to share about the beautiful atmosphere of pre-war Homs. He lived much of his life in Homs, and his wife is from al-Hamidiyyeh, a Christian neighborhood famous for its charming and walkable streets. (The al-Hamidiyyeh neighborhood association is responsible for posting many of the videos of Fr. Frans.) Before the war, Homs had a vibrant culture of weekly concerts, plays, and outdoor activities. Fr. Frans was an active part of this community.

A number of years ago, my tutor and his wife attended a youth performance of Hamlet. This adaptation of the play was modern and comical, and following the show Fr. Frans delivered a lecture on the philosophy of theatre. This was my tutor’s only encounter with Fr. Frans, but he, like the rest of the city, was aware of this saintly man and his perpetual optimism. My teacher’s former neighbor in Homs knew Fr. Frans quite well, and felt he was like a father or close friend.

A misty mystery

I don’t know what exactly brought tears to my eyes, but the combination of the beautiful culture and its tragic loss; the foreign sound of bombs and the familiar sound of Shami Arabic; and the human goodness that somehow persists in the midst of evil made a lump rise in my throat. I looked over and noticed that my teacher was fighting back tears, too.

Since encountering Fr. Frans, the Syrian people, and what they have to teach us about generosity, solidarity, and communion, the tears I lacked before have started flowing more freely. I find myself crying in anger and sadness because the injustice and pain that seem unending. And I find myself crying in hope and joy because people like Fr. Frans and my tutor exist.

And I anticipate that I’ll continue crying throughout this week, this Holy Week that somehow affirms and gathers up these conflicting feelings. During the next seven days, we are invited into this paradox of tears, a place where we cannot discern whether our emotion is due to sadness or joy, death or life. The Paschal mystery of Christ’s Passion, death, and resurrection tells us that these opposites actually go hand in hand.

But this mystery also teaches us the most important lesson of our faith, which an Arabic saying captures so strikingly. That, in the end, regardless of death and sin’s pervasive power, “still, the world is good.”

Thank you Fr. Frans, and you, my Most Generous teacher, for reminding me that the blockade will be lifted, that the stone will be rolled away, and that what appears to defeat is in fact the means for everlasting life.

We are preparing ourselves to Easter, reflecting on crossing from death to resurrection. We feel like we are in the valley of the shadows, but we can see that light far away, leading us to life again…We hope that Syria experience resurrection soon again… and let’s move forward. –Fr. Frans

 

Me and Mary Magdalene

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him. (Mark 16:1)

I press my face against the pink, veined marble slab, smeared with a fragrant oil that lingers on my neck and hands.  As I push myself from the cold ground, a tension forms in my throat and my vision blurs, but I can’t explain why I’m crying.

Why do tears build above my lower lids, if I know that this rose-colored stone is not where Jesus’ body was washed and wrapped?  If I know that this black sepulcher, whose ashy walls rise into the shadows of the ancient church, is not its final resting place?

Wandering through the empty darkness, I find the chapel of Mary Magdalene situated next to the sepulcher, where a small group of priests, nuns, and brown-clad monks chant the Latin Mass.  The words are strange to my ear but the familiar intonation, which I haven’t heard in months, awakens the waters deep within the well of my chest and draws up buckets that slosh over my lap.  So I sit in Mary’s pews, crying, not wanting to leave the tomb.

And Mary Magdalene was there, and the other Mary, sitting opposite the grave. (Matthew 27:61)

~~~

Days later, I wander through a garden, the purple light of dawn rising over the rock-hewn tomb, and the breeze gently tapping the trees’ leaves.  I’ve imagined this place countless times before—even the red flowers that pop through the dirt and the boulders resting on their sides.

The worshippers packed in rows for the sunrise Easter service are only apparitions that float away like mist, and their loud songs of praise are muffled by the quiet coos of doves resting in the twisted arms of olive trees.

Like the woman with dark hair and a red shawl who waited in this garden many years ago, I too sit alone, waiting for a friend to call my name.

And just like he promised, there he is.  On the stone steps, under the green branches that dip and bend.

He pulls me in, my face pressed into the crevice of his shoulder.  Into the white, woven linen that smells of the oil I spread across the pink marble.

I am drawn in, sown in tightly like the threads that rub against my cheek.  I wonder if this embrace has lasted for eternity, and then realize that eternity itself is this embrace.

When he steps away, and when the mist condenses into human forms once again, the scent of oil lingers in my hair.

I feel a flutter of white wings, splashing around in the waters of my chest.  The wind slips across my neck and drags a trail of clear water down my face.

I now realize why I cried in the dark church.  It’s because I, like Mary, desire to be close to Jesus.

And, I cry here, in the brightness of the sunrise, because I, like Mary, am so desired by God, and pulled into his warm embrace.

She turned around and saw Jesus there…[He] said to her, “Mary!” (John 20: 14, 16)

~~~

This piece describes my visits to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, which are both considered potential sites for the Jesus’ burial and resurrection.  My experience in the garden was shaped by my favorite resurrection account in the Gospel of John, which was read at the sunrise Easter service I attended there.   

I would like to thank a Georgetown Jesuit who introduced me to this story, which has greatly shaped the way I approach my life with God.

Last Easter, which was coincidentally one year ago today, I wrote about Mary Magdalene as well.  That reflection, Praying with Mary Magdalene, is closely linked to this one.

Outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
A pilgrim reverencing a stone in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that commemorates the washing of Jesus' body before burial in the sepulchre. The slab was only placed in the church within the last two centuries, to replace a 12th century one that was there previously.
A sculpture in the chapel of Mary Magdalene in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Jesus appears to Mary after the resurrection.
In the Garden Tomb at sunrise on Easter Sunday.
The red flowers that I'd always imagined in the Garden Tomb, without knowing they were actually there.

Kisses on Palm Sunday (“Peeling Oranges” series)

(My spring break spent in Jerusalem and Galilee provided me with many images that I hope to share through my Peeling Oranges series.)

Outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, I sulk in a mix of frustration and guilt, wanting to participate in the centuries-old traditions and services that originated in this city. On Palm Sunday, why can’t I find the leafy branches that laid across these stone roads two-thousand years ago?  Why can’t I find a Catholic Mass in this city of churches?

Momentarily distracted from my anxiety as I pass a group of young Palestinian children climbing on rocks, I wave as they yell, “Photo, photo!”

Discovering that I speak Arabic, they clamber down the ruins to shout out their names and ask mine.  The four girls pose for a photo, as the boy, Muhammad, stands shyly to the side.  In the clearest, highest Arabic I’ve ever heard, a girl with hair as blonde and eyes as blue as mine asks who my Arabic teacher is, and a girl with freckles on her forehead wonders if I pray.  I receive hugs and kisses on my cheek as I leave, waving goodbye to catch up with my friends.

But the blonde girl runs after me, calling, “Are you married?!”  I laugh at her question, which to her seems so important and to me so trivial.  After another round of embraces from the group, tears nearly slip down my cheek, where the coldness of their kisses lingers on my skin.

Once again, God is reminding me that it’s his people, not simply his traditions and rituals, where he can most easily found.  He has answered my prayer in a way I didn’t expect, substituting palms and incense with kisses and laughter.