On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
We finished our Easter Day Eucharist as usual and shared coffee and cake to celebrate the day of resurrection. There were smiles all around and laughter among the people gathered. After all, this Day of Resurrection, is the day that made us Christians.
The resurrection of our Lord and Master is the highlight of the Christian calendar. It was nothing unusual for us to expect more crowds in church that day. For 40 days we prepared ourselves to celebrate this feast. I even spoke to the choir the day before about the significance of the Easter greeting and the use of the Gloria and the word “hallelujah” after a hiatus of 40 days. It is a joyful, glorious day. In fact, it is such an important festival, that according to the Church Calendar, the festival of Easter is celebrated for 50 days!
Once we completed our rounds of greetings, I began to prepare to take Communion to the sick and invalid of my parish, as I had promised earlier. I went back home, checked my phone, and was surprised by the number of missed calls. Given the holiday, I thought they might have been calls to wish me a happy Easter. And then the messages started pouring in. “Are you ok?” and “Are you safe?” were repeated countless times. And with them, the tragic news of the attacks.
As I reflect on these attacks, there have been eight blasts with at least 250 dead and over 500 injured and in hospitals. Three of the blasts were at churches that were celebrating this great feast of Christians. Not taking into account the risks involved, together with a lay-assistant of mine, I went on the back of a motorbike in my cassock visiting the sick and invalid to administer the Eucharist.
While on my visit, I received a call from my Vicar informing me that all services had been cancelled until further notice and everyone was instructed not to gather in public places until the threat was assessed and dealt with. The severity of the incident was slowly beginning to dawn on me when the calls and the text messages did not cease.
Every time I saw the pictures of the carnage and thought of the juxtaposed incident of the murdering of innocents while celebrating the resurrection of their Lord and their God, it only furthered my grief and confusion. Furthermore, this incident brought to memory personal experiences of violence and conflict that were buried deep within the people, especially in northern Sri Lanka, where I serve.
It was this haunting image (below) that made me stop and consider what the Resurrection would mean to a Christian post-4/21.
How Do We Celebrate the Resurrection Now?
The feast of the Resurrection is the holiest of days for a Christian. Whatever denomination we come from, we agree on the fact that we believe that our Lord and Master rose from the dead. On Good Friday we remember that the Lord Jesus took upon himself the pain, anger and evil of the world and exposed the violence that was prevalent in the hearts of the people and he died. He became for us both high priest and victim in this whole act.
But it is not without hope. On Holy Saturday, the eve of Easter, the New Fire is blessed, the Easter candle—the symbol of the Resurrection—is blessed and lit, our baptismal vows—the basis of our faith—are renewed and we enter the church with joyful expectation. On Sunday, we remember that the Lord Jesus defeated death, the grave and the powers of darkness and rose triumphantly from the dead.
Easter celebrates the death of death and the end to violence. It is the triumph of good over evil and the assurance that “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5). It is for this solemn moment that we fast and prepare ourselves through self-examination over the course of 40 days, during which the words of praise (“hallelujah”) are not heard.
What a glorious celebration it is!
But in the wake of this tragedy, we are haunted by questions concerning these very beliefs. A close friend expressed the logical reaction: “Why didn’t God protect the people who were praying in the church, his dwelling place? Why didn’t God stop them? What kind of a god is this?” I have no doubt that the survivors and the families of the victims are wondering the same things. It is a herculean task to lay your entire family to rest. It is heart-wrenching to see innocent children affected by these heinous acts of violence. How do we reconcile our Easter beliefs with this incident?
I don’t claim to hold the answers for these questions, but for me, the key is in the image displayed above. This statue stands at St. Sebastian’s Church, Katuwapitiya, Katana. The statue of the resurrected Christ, with one hand raised high in triumph, is splattered by the blood of the innocent victims of 4/21. The statue itself depicts Jesus, even though resurrected and given a body in glory, still bearing the wounds of the crucifixion.
The Gospel of John, as quoted above, also speaks of the resurrected Christ standing among his disciples. During this incident, the first words as uttered by Jesus are “Peace be with you” and then he shows the wounds on his hands and his side. This is as if to say, “Look at the price I bore for this peace. This peace cannot be given to you by the world and those who live in it. It is only through me that you can receive this peace.”
This costly peace that Jesus won for us compels us, in turn, to be peacemakers (Matt 5:9) and engage in the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18). We have to keep in mind that the biblical peace that is spoken of is not outward peace, but peace in every sphere of our life, working together to bring about well-being for the whole self. This peace can be achieved only if justice is achieved. As Isaiah 32:17 says, “The fruit of that righteousness (justice) will be peace; its effect will be quietness and confidence forever.” And so, we are called to not only be peacemakers, but to work towards achieving justice.
Bearing The Cross, Bearing Witness
If history has shown us anything, it is that those who truly follow God, will always be persecuted. The Christian faith is built on the call to deny self, take up our cross and follow Christ. As one priest explained, when we choose to become Christians, we sign over our lives to Christ. The cross is an instrument of death and we are called to deny ourselves and carry the cross daily as our sign. Further, the call to deny self is to transcend all narrow sectarianism and self-interest and live for the 'other' whoever the other may be.
The church was built on the spilled blood of the saints of the early Church who gave their lives willingly for what they believed in. They died due to their uncompromising faith. They did not deny or dilute their faith, but held onto it with all that they could. So much so, that they bore witness to their faith in Jesus even in the way they died.
Isn’t this true of those who died during the services in church on Easter Sunday? Didn’t they die proclaiming their faith and their love for Christ? Didn’t they take up their cross and lay down their lives for him? Aren’t they like the saints of old? If not all, I’m sure most were. These are the victims on whose spilled blood the church will be established.
For the survivors and those who are left to mourn, there are no easy answers to the questions that cloud our minds and shake our faith. But we know that it is through suffering that we come to know Christ and his peace. It is through the pain, the trials and the trauma that we experience the peace of God. It is in coming to terms with our own experiences of suffering that we come to see God. The wounds we bear will never leave us for their scars will always be with us. But it is in those experiences that we gain our strength (2 Cor. 12:8–10). They are the signs of our faith. For the disciples recognized Jesus and rejoiced because they recognized his wounds. Bear them well.
It is also important to remember that, according to the passage from John quoted above, the believers were hiding inside the Upper Room because they feared the Jews. In today’s context, when we are driven by fear, we act contrary to God. It is fear that will cause us to lash out at other innocents. It is fear that causes divisions. It is fear that will make us hate. It is fear that will make us wrongfully accuse and label. But, it is amid their fear that Jesus spoke his peace. He says, “Be still, my child, I am here.” It is among the shattered glass and broken tiles with blood splattered that the statue of Christ stands. Furthermore, the risen Lord appears while his disciples were journeying, eating a meal, and all the while when they doubted to reassure them of his presence among their situation.
How many of us are ready to realize the presence of our Lord and Master among our fear, confusion and doubt? And how many of us will give into our fear? We must remember that the early church was characterized by their love for one another. Love must triumph over fear. 1 John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” The New Commandment that Jesus gave us was to love one another as he loved us (John 13:34–35), that is to say, even to the point of death. Christians are called to have uncompromising faith and unfailing love irrespective of race or religion—especially in the present context in Sri Lanka.
But, the buck does not stop there. Jesus goes on to breathe on his disciples to baptize them with the Holy Spirit and then sends them out. He commissioned them to go forth, just as the Father sent him, to propagate love. We too are commissioned today, just as the disciples were 2,000 years ago, to propagate love among fear and hatred. The triumph of the cross is that the way of love overcame all life-negating forces.
Will we bear the cross well?
Jurinesz R. Shadrach is an ordained priest of the Anglican Church in Sri Lanka, currently serving at St. John's College, Jaffna as Chaplain and at St. John the Baptist Church, Jaffna as curate.