By Kyle Cristofalo, Senior Director of Advocacy and Government Relations at CMEP
“For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building. By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care.” 1 Corinthians 3. 9-10
I do not have a particularly green thumb. One time when I was in Seminary, I accepted a plant-sitting job. The family had stopped their mail and brought their pet with them on vacation. The only task I had was to water their plants. If it rained enough (which it did), I only had to water the inside plants. One simple task. No problem, right? Well, the plants survived, but by the time I left, they were not looking particularly healthy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I did not receive any future plant-sitting requests.
What does gardening have to do with Lent? What does it have to do with my work at Churches for Middle East Peace? During this season, I have been reflecting on a prayer written in honor of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, assassinated due to his criticism of a corrupt government that overlooked the needs of the people. One section, in particular, stands out:
“This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he reminds the leaders of the community that while they play an important role as “co-workers in God’s service,” ultimately, God brings the results to fruition. In other words, “We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.” This does not give us an excuse to sit back and wait–indeed the work of being God’s field and building comes with great responsibility. Whether we are master gardeners or struggle to keep plants alive, is irrelevant. The seed is not good because we plant it. We can plant the perfect garden only to have our hard work undone by an animal or a particularly bad storm. It is good because it is part of God’s redemptive work for this world. Our role is not to do everything, but to be faithful to our call to help bring about God’s justice in a world that so desperately needs it.
“We plant the seeds that one day will grow….”
Every day we hear more news of death and destruction throughout the Middle East. In Yemen, 16 million people live on the brink of starvation as the Saudi-led civil war enters its seventh year. In just over the year since President Biden began his term in office, Israel has demolished more than 1,000 Palestinian properties resulting in the displacement of over 1,300 Palestinians. The economic crisis in Lebanon continues without indication it will let up anytime soon. We might be tempted to ask whether it is worth continuing to advocate if the facts on the ground continue to deteriorate by the day. Does our voice really matter? On days when I feel particularly helpless, I remind myself that I am a worker, not a master builder; a minister, and not a messiah. I am not responsible for “solving” all of the challenges faced in the Middle East. Yet, I am not absolved from doing my part, either. The results might seem small, but they are a step along the way, an opportunity for the good seeds planted to blossom into a future in which all of God’s people are finally free.
Creator God, on the days when we feel our work is for nothing, remind us that you have called us to be co-workers in the service of peace and justice for your creation. May we trust that the seeds planted today will one day blossom so that justice will prevail in the Middle East and throughout the world.
Kyle Cristofalo, Senior Director of Advocacy and Government Relations/Special Advisor to the Executive Director. Kyle holds a BA in Peace and Conflict Studies from Messiah College and a Master of Divinity Degree from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Kyle was first introduced to Middle East advocacy work during a semester abroad in Cairo, Egypt. After graduating from college, Kyle spent 10 months serving with the Mennonite Central Committee in Bethlehem, Palestine, where he was seconded to work with Bethlehem Bible College.
Jeremiah 58:11 The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
There is something very human about having ash smeared upon one’s skin. The charred remnants of a once green, living thing—when it comes into contact with our flesh—are intended to encourage us to inhabit a posture of repentance and remind us of the fragility of our short existence on this earth.
earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
And yet, this brush with death and decay ought also to remind us of life and its persistence. Though ash is a product of fire, which has the potential to cause immense destruction, it contains some of the most vital nutrients for soil—calcium, magnesium, potassium. Ash is akin to compost in that way—both are composed of the decay of living things, which in turn, fosters fertile conditions for new life to spring forth.
Death, agriculturally speaking, is certainly a necessary precursor for new growth. Yet we must be careful in our desire to draw parallels and find hope amid desperation, not to erase the grave reality facing our siblings in the Middle East, whose freedom and right to life are under constant threat today. In the wake of an ongoing global pandemic that disproportionately affected those in the Middle East, the presence of death is all too familiar for those in the region. Amid the pandemic, an economic crisis rages in Lebanon, making everyday needs inaccessible to a majority of the population. In Jerusalem, dozens of families continue to face the threat of home demolitions and displacement at the hands of the city municipality and military. And the people of Gaza continue to face airstrikes and other attacks on the heels of one of the most brutal years of Israeli military attacks on Gaza in recent history.
So many lives have been lost, and so many more have been maimed, imprisoned, and deteriorated. For these injustices and so many more, we cry out to the God whose waters never fail.
And yet, in a season where we might be easily discouraged when it comes to the ongoing cultivation of peace and justice in the Middle East, might we instead learn about hope from ash and soil? In times full of mourning, though a faithful and healthy practice, might we find comfort in the mystery of the earth that brings forth life from death? And in seasons of loss and lament, might we draw hope from a God who tends to creation like a garden, seeking to water us well?
While mourning the immense loss of life and opportunities for peace, Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) is also celebrating the small victories and glimmers of hope that sprout up simultaneously. We celebrate alongside our dear friends and allies who are laboring for peace and justice in the Middle East, and we join in the work of hope together. Hope, not an empty platitude, but the work of cultivation itself. The Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb offers that hope is envisioning a future beyond destruction, as the prophet Jeremiah did. He suggests that “hope is faith in action in the face of the empire. Hope is what we do today.” (Raheb 2014, 130).
Let us find encouragement in the God of Life, who tends to seeds planted, even in the midst of winter, even during the darkest of days. And let us be emboldened by our siblings in the Middle East, who have never given up hope, and join them in sowing faithful seeds. May we live into the tension between death and life, and nurture the conditions upon which hope can grow.
Living God, remind us, in this season, of the viability of prayerful tending to the seeds of peace and justice. As we contemplate the fragility of life and its interconnectedness with death and decay, let us be invigorated to tend to life amid the ashes. Oh God of soil and seed and compost, strengthen us to continue laboring for the life and flourishing of all our brothers and sisters in the Middle East, and for our collective liberation.
Jennifer Maidrand is the Outreach Manager for CMEP. She is a Ph.D. candidate in Bible and Cultures at Drew University, where she also earned her M.A. Her research focuses on how biblical interpretation and archeology have shaped the contemporary land of Palestine-Israel and its geo-politics. She is a member of the UCC Church and is committed to fostering interfaith and intercultural community education and dialogue around sacred texts, the earth, and politics. Jennifer is grateful to have the opportunity to utilize and grow these passions, previously as a fellow and now as a staff member with CMEP. When she isn’t working, you can find Jennifer trail running, rock climbing, gardening, or playing with her cats, Peanut and Fig.
Raheb, Mitri. Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible Through Palestinian Eyes. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2014.
The pre-Lenten season of Shrovetide begins 49 days before Easter and culminates on Shrove Tuesday. For many churches, the tradition is for the palm branches used in the service the previous Palm Sunday to be burned in preparation for the next day, Ash Wednesday. Other traditions celebrate Fat Tuesday and mark the day with pancake breakfasts, or other sweets, such as Pączki (fried dough). These traditions embody the tension between death (ash) and sweetness in life (cakes).
As Christians around the world, including in the Middle East, prepare for Lent, all experience a sharp reminder of humanity’s mortality, finiteness, fragility, and our need for God. God who is love, life, infinite, and abundant. It also takes place at the time of year when those of us in the Northern Hemisphere experience the lengthening of days in the move from winter to spring. As you join CMEP and our brothers and sisters in Christ in the Middle East this Lenten season, I pray that you would not find yourself mired in despair for your humanity, but that the awareness of your need for God’s goodness, grace, and forgiveness would increase. We especially keep this truth in mind as we grieve so many realities affecting people in the Middle East such as the ongoing war in Yemen, the devastating economic crisis in Lebanon, and the humanitarian and human rights concerns in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Then I turned to the Lord God, to seek an answer by prayer and supplication with fasting and sackcloth and ashes. Daniel 9:3
From death, dirt, and ash comes growth, fruit, abundance, and life. May the light of God meet us in these dark days, watering our parched spirits, cultivating our souls, laid bare, with the seeds of awareness and future promise sown so that God may begin a new thing in our life.
God, I pray that you would meet each of us in our dark night of the soul to warm the coldness of our hearts and that while we reflect, examine, confess and repent we would be prepared for the new season you invite us to. Spirit, prick our hearts and guide each of us to a fuller, deeper, richer knowledge of your love, life, and the ultimate sacrifice of Christ Jesus, our Lord.
Written by Rev. Aune M. Carlson, Director of Operations for CMEP. Aune earned her Masters of Divinity and Masters of Nonprofit Administration and graduate certificates from North Park Theological Seminary and School of Business and Nonprofit Administration. Ordained by The Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC). She is passionate about creating, defining, and refining structures to operate effectively and efficiently. A collaborative team leader, building a strong team atmosphere where tasks are met with close attention to detail and creativity.
***** Any views or opinions contained herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP).
This devotion, written by CMEP’s Manager of Middle East Partnerships, Kevin Vollrath, is in preparation for our upcoming Lent Devotional series. The first Lent Devotional will be available on March 1, 2022, and our theme for Lent is “Hope Grows: Seeds planted, future promise”. You can find our Lent Devotional series here.
LEARNING ABOUT ANCIENT CHRISTIAN COMMUNITIES
‘Why are we ‘celebrating’ the fast of Great Lent this month?’
EDITOR’S NOTE: Right now in America, there’s not a hotter question than: What does it mean to be “Christian”? Of course, that question is freighted with our own “local” political meaning in the United States today. Here at ReadTheSpirit magazine, our goal week after week is to cover global religious and cultural diversity—because we believe that learning about diversity leads to healthier communities.
Around the world, Christians make up nearly a third of our population, according to Pew Research. However, North America is home to only about 12 percent of the world’s 2.2 billion Christians. That means our American battles over who can be called a “Christian” can sound like a local family feud among the nearly 2 billion Christians who live in South America, Africa, Europe and Asia.
This week’s cover story reminds us, as Americans, about another vast swath of Christianity—nearly 300 million Christians who most Americans tend to forget: the Orthodox. Thanks to researcher Kevin Vollrath and our long-time friend Mae Cannon, ReadTheSpirit plans to bring readers a monthly series of stories from this ancient Eastern branch of Christianity. You can read our latest Cover Story on Mae Cannon’s work from 2020, headlined: As millions of Christians move toward activism, you should meet Mae Elise Cannon, an ethical organizer. Among her many commitments, Mae is executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace, which made this new monthly series possible. You can learn more about Kevin at the end of this column.
We start this week with a story about Father Elias Khoury, a Greek Orthodox priest in Jadeidi, Israel, who is preparing for Great Lent to begin on March 15. That may surprise many of our readers, because we reported on the start of Lent for Western Christians last month! In fact, this year, the Western and Orthodox calendars vary by almost an entire month.
Father Elias: ‘As Christians, our life is a fasting period.’
Father Elias Khoury
By KEVIN VOLLRATH Contributing Columnist
When Father Elias Khoury, a Greek Orthodox priest in Jadeidi, Israel, talks with his community about the Fast of Great Lent, he uses words like “celebrate” and “joyful” that may sound surprising to Christians living in the United States. Millions of American Christians—Catholics and Protestants—began Lent on February 17 with Ash Wednesday. Because church calendars vary between Western and the ancient Eastern churches, Orthodox churches will begin the period of reflection that leads to Easter with Clean Monday on March 15. And very much like Father Elias’s sermons in the Middle East, Orthodox clergy emphasize the great joy families should feel while giving up a whole host of favorite foods.
For Americans, giving up chocolate during Lent seems like a major sacrifice. In the Orthodox world, observant families abstain from meat, fish, eggs and dairy products, wine and oil.
What’s joyful about that?
This kind of fasting is a reminder of the watchfulness and humble self-denial with which Christians should live their lives, Father Elias says. “As Christians, our life is a fasting period. We’re not just doing it one day or one week. It’s not just a celebration of a memorial day. It’s something that we live, not just during times like the Fast of Great Lent, but all of our life. It involves much more than what we are eating and drinking. We must learn to become watchful and fasting is living in that awareness, when you watch yourself always. It’s a daily process and our job as Christians.”
That is also why Great Lent is part of a much longer process that actually began weeks ago for Orthodox communities—preparing week by week with scripture readings, prayers and a gradual paring away of foods to be ready when Great Lent begins.
The seven weeks of Great Lent are preceded by four weeks of preparation in which the faithful give up whole sections of their normal diet until a family’s dinner table is, for the duration of Lent, stripped of animal products, wine and oil. Far from arduous, it is a joyful time of drawing near to each other and God, with daily prayers and inspiring Bible readings. Lent is a celebration because it gives us the opportunity “to live the biblical story” liturgically, from creation in Genesis to redemption in Revelation, as Father Elias puts it.
“Our readings during this time are joyful and not sad,” Father Elias says. “We’re celebrating the Kingdom of God on Earth! It’s part repentance, and part happiness that God gave us salvation”
Before becoming a Greek Orthodox priest, Father Elias worked as an engineer. He has been married for over 20 years and has two kids. He also enjoys teaching in a local middle school.
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
The dust of Holy Week turmoil has settled, but the grief of execution hasn’t.
Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea, and he himself was waiting for the kingdom of God. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body. Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid. It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin.
The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.
Anyone who has spent a weekend in Jerusalem knows about Jerusalem’s Sabbath rotation: Friday in the Muslim quarter, Saturday in the Jewish quarter, and Sunday in the Christian quarters. Anyone traveling over these days must be careful to coordinate the different bus or train systems and their unique sabbath observances.
Sabbath observance varies between and within faith traditions but is often a joyful time of rest, worship, and family togetherness. Each tradition remembers God’s creation of the world and subsequent rest. Muslims observe Jumu’ah prayers Friday afternoon– “Jumu’ah” sharing its root with the Arabic words for mosque, Friday, and group/ gathering.
At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).
When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”
Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.
With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.
The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”
Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.
From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.
We began lent with this profound reminder of our mortality. You don’t have to be a Christian to believe we came from dust or dirt and can’t escape returning to our humble beginnings. Still, I feel the depth of this reminder’s meaning eluding me. Is there not more to me than the dust from which I came?
It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May those who love you be secure. May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels.” For the sake of my family and friends, I will say, “Peace be within you.” For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your prosperity.
As we enter Holy Week, this psalm invites us into prayerful wordplay. The Hebrew word translated as “peace” in the first line and “prosperity” in the final line is the familiar shalom, which means “complete” or “whole,” or “flourishing.” The verb here translated as “be secure” also means “rest tranquil,” from the Hebrew yishlayu—an alliteration of yerushalem, translated Jerusalem.
As we enter Holy Week, let us pray for the peace of the City of Peace. Literally.
Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John” —although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”