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)

Diet Advice from the Caliph

The walls of the priest’s office were lined with black-and-white photographs of his father donning a checkered Jordanian kufiyyeh and his little sister wearing her white First Communion dress. Newer pictures of Jordan’s king, Abdullah II, Roman Catholic bishops of Jordan, and Pope John Paul II, flanked the family shots. 

But the most striking images in Fr. Hanna’s office were the plainest ones: white sheets of paper with Arabic and English quotations spoken by famous individuals. There were sayings by Martin Luther King, Jr., Aristotle, and even a character from the film, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” But the most commonly quoted leader was someone less familiar in the Western world: Ali bin Abi Talib, one of Islam’s most important caliphs and Fr. Hanna’s “beloved friend.”

Fr. Hanna is a scholar of Christian history in the Middle East and an ecumenical and interfaith leader in Jordan. I visited his parish in outskirts of Amman to talk about my research on Muslim-Christian relations and the media in Jordan. For Fr. Hanna, like every Jordanian, interfaith dialogue is not simply an interest, but a way of life. For over a thousand years, Muslims and Christians have lived together—drinking coffee, doing business, watching each others’ kids, and even celebrating holidays—without a thought. They’ve rubbed off a lot of each other, both theologically and culturally, and Fr. Hanna’s affinity for the caliph Ali demonstrates that.

The words of Ali were scrawled in loopy Arabic calligraphy, so Fr. Hanna deciphered and translated them for me into English. One phrase talked about rejecting a wealthy lifestyle, and another warned about getting overly attached to worldly relationships. But Fr. Hanna’s favorite quote of Ali’s is a bit more practical: it was diet advice.

We walked into the kitchen, where the phrase was pasted above the table and next to a sparkly, woven image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It read, “Whatever you limit yourself to is enough.” He told me that the phrase keeps him from eating too much. “If I limit myself to a banana for dinner, and tell myself it’s enough, then it will be,” he said.

But Fr. Hanna does not just eat small meals just to watch his weight; he, like Ali, recognizes the spiritual benefits of fasting. We talked about how many Catholics in the West have abandoned the practice which Muslims, who fast for the entire month of Ramadan, and ِEastern Orthodox Christians, who have a number of strict fasting periods, have maintained. We agreed that Western Christians should re-adopt fasting, which diverts the mind from the body and instead directs it toward God.

Still standing in the kitchen, Father told me a final Arabic saying which illustrates the deep connections between Christians and Muslims. “We say that ‘the heart of a Muslim is a little bit Christian, and the heart of a Christian is a little bit Muslim.’ It’s because Muslims receive so much of their religious heritage from Christianity and because Christians here have been so influenced by Islamic beliefs and culture.”

This sharing, or “enculturation” as Fr. Hanna put it, is at the heart of religious life  in Jordan and in the Middle East more largely. How beautiful it was to be reminded of it there, standing beside the ornate words of a beloved Muslim and an image of Jesus, whose glittering, open heart is made up of a little bit of all of us.

The image of Jesus' Sacred Heart and Ali's quote depicted in two styles of Arabic calligraphy.
The image of Jesus’ Sacred Heart and Ali’s quote depicted in two styles of Arabic calligraphy.

To learn more about Ali, click here.

To read more about surprising similarities between Christians and Muslims, check out my latest post for Commonweal.

At a loss

When I arrived back to my apartment late on Tuesday night, the eleventh anniversary of September 11, 2001, I opened my laptop to find a burning, bright orange image of a man stoking fire and a New York Times headline reading, “Anger Over a Film Fuels Anti-American Attacks in Libya and Egypt.”

As I read on about the violent demonstrations in Cairo and in Benghazi, and as I watched the offensive, bigoted video that apparently sparked these riots, my stomach began to drop.

I was at a loss for words, didn’t know what to say or even think.

How could this be happening? And why the hell was it happening on September 11th?  And what can I do that will ever, in some way, pull us out of this cycle of bigotry and violence?

Over the past week, as I’ve thought about how to comment on these unraveling events and answer these questions, no clear explanation or response has been easy to find.  Instead, I keep coming back to the place I was just before I opened my laptop to discover this terrible news—in Copley Crypt Chapel at Georgetown.

“I wish you didn’t…” said the Jesuit priest who was giving the homily at the nightly 10pm Mass.  About thirty of us, mostly students, were seated in a semi-circle in the small, arched space, where faint gold light rests on the curved walls.  The stained glass windows, depicting the martyrdoms of North American Jesuits like Jean de Brebeuf, let in only darkness from outside.

“I wish you didn’t live in this time, this era, where things are so hard and unclear. I wish you were graduating at a time like the one when I did—when walls were falling down and a man was released from jail to lead his country.” Our priest graduated from Georgetown in the nineties, optimistic that the Cold War had ended and that Nelson Mandela was free.  Things seemed to be looking up—and then 9/11 happened.

“But you are living in this new, troubled world.  And our world needs you.”  He was crying, and I began to cry, too.  On the anniversary of 9/11, I’m always reminded how much my life, my passions, and my career have been shaped by that event and what’s happened after.

Our priest then spoke of the group of us gathered there for Mass, about the difference we must make.

And it was then that I became completely overwhelmed by the good that will be done (and is already being done) by the thirty-some people sitting with me.  To my right and left sat two of my closest friends, who have dedicated their lives to address two of our generation’s most pressing issues: migration and climate change.  I thought of others in the room, and my friends who weren’t there, who are going into education and business, medicine and healthcare, just to name a few.  My eyes welled over not just with amazement at my friends’ love and self-sacrifice, but also with a heavy sadness at the challenges we face and the suffering experienced by those with whom we walk in solidarity.

The priest concluded his homily, explaining why we come to Mass.  He said that it’s not inside the academic buildings on campus where we can be transformed to make the difference our world needs.

“It’s right here, with Jesus,” he said.

The crucifix in Copley Crypt Chapel at Georgetown.

I’ve come to learn that becoming closer to God doesn’t mean becoming happier or even more at peace.  It means coming face-to-face with, and even entering, suffering.  Jesus was at his best on the cross, and in order for me to be a better, more loving human, I have to meet him there, both in nightly Mass and in the work I do during the other 23 hours of my day.

The loving Catholic community and the time of prayer that helps orient me toward a more Cross-centered life are the reasons I continue going to nightly Mass at Georgetown.  But I wouldn’t even be there in the first place were it not for the group of believers on the other side of the chapel wall—the Georgetown Muslim community.  While the Catholics are participating in the nightly 10pm Mass, the Muslim students are completing their nightly 10pm isha prayer in the musallah next door. Over the past three years, I’ve witnessed my Muslim friends’ devotion to prayer, and it’s made me want to have the same commitment to my own prayer life. That’s why I decided to become more active in my own Catholic community, and to make nightly Mass a regular part of my day during my senior year.

As I sort through and begin writing about these confusing, troubling “eleventh anniversary” events, which mark a new low in the downward spiral of Muslim-Christian tensions, I remember the good that will be done by those on both sides of the chapel wall, and the support we will provide one another as we take up our crosses.

When it seems that violence and bigotry will win out, the passionate commitment of these Catholic and Muslim communities remind me of the quiet, Arabic words that echo from the musallah into the chapel every evening: God is greater.

Attentiveness in Advent

Every year during Advent, the four-week season leading up to Christmas, Catholics hear passages from Scripture that remind us to be watchful and ready for the coming of Christ.   These passages explain that we are not only awaiting the celebration of Jesus’ birth, but also for his second coming at the end of time.

Advent wreath in Georgetown's Dahlgren Chapel

Gabriel tells Mary about the birth of her son.
Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. (Luke 1)

John tells his critics that he is not the Messiah.
There is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me. (John 1)

And Jesus tells his disciples to prepare for his second coming at the end of time.
Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming. (Mark 13)

To be honest, every year during Advent I feel a bit bashed over the head with these constant reminders about Jesus’ coming.  ‘Ok, ok, I get it!’ I think after the third week. The message never seems all that surprising or relevant. We surely never forget to celebrate Jesus’ birth—even amid the red and green Christmas regalia—and the event of the second coming seems far away (and, in my mind, not quite as concrete as the way it’s described in Scripture.)

Thankfully, this year these concerns of mine were addressed by two Georgetown Jesuits, whose homilies on the Advent Scripture passages helped clarify what this season is all about.

These two events we hear about—Jesus’ first coming at Christmas and his second coming at the end of time—are at the ends of a very long timeline of history, a Jesuit said, and we are in the middle, distant from them.  What we really should be preparing ourselves for are the third, fourth, and fifth comings of Christ that happen in between.  The times when Jesus breaks into our lives in ordinary and unexpected ways.

As Christians, we believe in the Incarnation, the act of God taking on human form in the person of Jesus.  The Incarnation isn’t a singular event that happened two millennia ago, but rather a fundamental doctrine that tells us in quite simple terms about how we understand God: God wants to be with us, here and now, and reaches out to us through human experience. A belief in Jesus doesn’t ask us to remove ourselves from this world in order to be with God; it says that we can best achieve unity with God by engaging fully with our human reality.

The question is, do we notice Jesus’ third, fourth, fifth, and infinite comings, these expressions of the recurring Incarnation?

Unfortunately, the Jesuit said, we often don’t.  We’re too connected to our phones, music, and email.  And even when we put the technology away, our minds are running at 100 miles per hour, thinking ahead about the ways in which we can be as efficient as possible.  We don’t give ourselves time to reflect back on our days, to find the times in which Jesus has appeared to us.  During Advent then, we must be actively attentive to the Incarnation, to God’s countless attempts to push through the clutter of our lives.

Knowing that I’m guilty of this lack of attentiveness as much as the next person, I welcomed this challenge from the Jesuit.  It’s a challenge I have already been working on for much of my time at Georgetown: to slow down enough to notice Jesus in my life.

And, thankfully, I have begun to notice.

When a chaplain-in-residence passed me on campus several weeks back, he said, “Hey Jordan!” and gave me a quick fist bump. It was a simple, silly gesture, one that the chaplain probably forgot about two minutes later. But for me, it was a brief, yet powerful example of the way Jesus appears to me everyday.  With his short but enthusiastic hello, the chaplain reminded me of the great love God has for me, reflected through ordinary people and ordinary situations.

I recognized the significance of this small act because I wasn’t talking on my cell phone (as I often do when I walk) or mentally preoccupied with my next task.  By simply slowing down, I was also able to recognize that the jokes I shared with my friends, the music the choir sang at Mass, and the beautiful sunset that burst into view as I turned a corner in one of the most ugly parts of campus are all little third, fourth, and fifth comings of Christ.

Most if not all of the time, “finding Jesus” isn’t about having a mystical experience or undergoing a massive life change.  It’s about simply realizing that a hug from a mentor or a laugh with a friend is the mystery of Incarnation at work. 

It’s not always easy to realize, in the moment, that many of these everyday experiences are of God and from God.  It takes a moment of stepping back and reflecting.  In a homily later during Advent, another Georgetown Jesuit encouraged the congregation to reflect back on the ways Jesus has shown himself to us.  We closed our eyes.

Jesus “brings good tidings to the poor,” he said, quoting the day’s reading from Isaiah.  When you were down or depressed, how did others bring you up?  Recognize these moments, he said, and name Jesus as gift.

He continued: Jesus “heals the broken-hearted.” When you were broken-hearted or hurt, who helped you heal?  Jesus “proclaims liberty to the captives” and “releases the prisoners.”  When you were prisoner to your own habits or feelings of inadequacy, how did others free you from those things?  Be thankful for these moments, and name Jesus as gift.

When read in full, the Isaiah passage makes clear that the “good tidings” we hear from Jesus don’t come to us in abstract terms, but through the smiles and fist bumps of those around us. He says, “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me … he has sent me to bring good tidings…” We, humans, are the way in which God reaches out to the world.

This reflective exercise allowed me to think back on the at once simple and profound ways that I experienced love from friends, family, and mentors during past semester. When one part of my life felt empty, they (often times unknowingly) would rush in fill it up that hole to the point of overflowing.  Their outpouring of support and love was Jesus—God Incarnate.  It was a gift, and I must constantly reflect back in gratefulness in order not to miss it.

As we move into the Christmas season and begin the new year, we need not look for God outside of the normalcy of our everyday lives.  Instead we just to be more attentive to what’s already around us.  We must remember what we celebrate on Christmas: Emmanuel—“God is with us.”

This quote was cited by the first Jesuit during his Advent homily.