EPPN Lenten Series: Supporting peace in the land of the holy one

An Ash Wednesday Reflection

By Alexander D. Baumgarten
Posted Mar 5, 2014

[Episcopal Public Policy Network] “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” — 2 Corinthians 5: 18

Dear Fellow Advocates,

Today begins Lent and, as in years past, the Episcopal Public Policy Network is pleased to present a thematic advocacy and education series during the seven weeks leading up to Easter. This year, we turn our attention to peace in the Holy Land, a theme that could not be any more timely as Israelis and Palestinians enter a critical phase of negotiations mediated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The theme also could not be more appropriate for Lent, whose climax, of course, comes in the passion, death, and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the holy city of Jerusalem.

The Lenten journey that comes before Holy Week, however, is equally apt. The word Lent, as the Presiding Bishop reminded us in her message for the season has its root in the lengthening of days. In the northern hemisphere, the journey from the winter to spring that accompanies Lent puts this in stark relief. The ancient Eastern icon for Easter depicts the Risen Christ reaching into the ground, into the Hell where Adam and Eve had slumbered for “four thousand winters,” and grasping them by the wrist to draw them forcefully into the springtime of resurrection. A well-known Western hymn for Easter (#204 in the Hymnal) describes resurrection as a “green blade” that “riseth from the buried grain, wheat that in dark earth, many days hath lain.”

Am I getting ahead of myself to discuss Easter before the great 40-day fast of Lent has even begun? I don’t think so. Lent, in its most ancient (and most persistent) understanding, has been a season of preparation for Baptism, first for the catechumens who would be, and in many places still are baptized at the Great Vigil of Easter, and then later, as the Presiding Bishop reminds us, for the rest of us in the congregation who accompany the new believers in their baptismal preparations and renew our baptismal vows –– “by which we once renounced Satan and all his works and promised to serve God faithfully in his holy Catholic Church” – at the Vigil.

As I write to you this year, baptism is a great deal on my mind. I am with the Presiding Bishop in the Holy Land, on the Jordanian side of the River Jordan, celebrating Ash Wednesday with Jerusalem’s Anglican bishop, Suheil Dawani. Yesterday, we visited the site believed by many scholars and archaeologists to be the traditional place of the Baptism of Christ . All of this has reminded me anew that a fundamental purpose of Lent is for the Christian community to prepare itself to die with Christ, to be plunged into the waters (or the cold earth, or Hell…) in order to rise with him. All of our Lenten preparations – fasting, discipline in worship and prayer, almsgiving, repentance, and reconciliation – are preparation for this act of dying and rising.

Last year, I wrote a bit on Ash Wednesday about repentance. This year, I’d like to think a bit about reconciliation. The central point of the Easter story, indeed the fulcrum of the entire Gospel, is God’s act of reconciling the world to himself through the death and resurrection of Jesus. But, as Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 5, that act of reconciliation comes with a specific charge to the Christian community that this same work, or ministry, of reconciliation be entrusted to us.

In one way, it is difficult, indeed daunting, to comprehend the ministry of reconciliation – the work that the catechism of the Prayer Book describes as the Church’s mission to “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” – because, divorced from the Cross and Resurrection, it would seem that God puts the burden for the act of reconciling people to God and each other squarely on our shoulders. Surely I am not up to that task!

The Good News, however, is that the ministry of reconciliation is given to us as a consequence of the fact that the reconciliation of all people and all things to God and each other has already been accomplished in the work of the Cross and Resurrection. That reconciliation is obscured by the brokenness of the human condition in the present; our task, our ministry, is to peel back the layers of sin and brokenness in our world to allow that reconciliation to shine forth. That’s a very different task indeed.

All of our Lenten disciplines of reconciliation – whether we embrace the sacramental act of confessing our sins to a priest, or whether we seek to restore our relationships with those we have wronged or who have wronged us, or whether seek peace between nations and peoples — are bound up in this same work of removing the human obstructions that hide, in the here and now, the reality of a world fully reconciled to the One who created it.

All of which is a long way of coming to the subject of peace in the Holy Land. Through the years, The Episcopal Church, a partner of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East, has said a great deal about the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Our most recent General Convention spent significant time on the subject, as has the Executive Council this triennium. We have said a great deal about justice and peace, both in times of great upheaval and in times of great hope for this conflict that now nears its eighth decade. The present hour is one, paradoxically, both of great frustration and great hope.

The frustration is clear. Among both Israeli and Palestinian advocates for peace, there is hope, but optimism is far more elusive. What each side sees in its daily reality is discouraging. Palestinians see the continued challenge of occupation in daily life and the ongoing construction of Israeli settlements and demarcation of de-facto borders that deviate from those that existed prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Among Israelis, there is widespread fear that political changes in the region have undermined the nation’s security in relation to Arab and Muslim nations, with ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear future proving particularly worrisome and incidents of domestic attacks on Israelis continuing into the present. Many advocates for peace on both sides fear that the preservation of the status quo for much longer will harden extremists in each camp and make a future solution functionally untenable. That’s the here and now.

But, even if optimism is elusive, even if people on each side feel they have been fooled one too many times by the prospect of peace, there is something else afoot that is causing hope to grow ever-so perceptibly. For more than six months, Israeli and Palestinian leaders have been quietly working at the most senior level, through the mediation of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, toward creating the space in which negotiations toward two-state solution might occur. As a result of those talks, Secretary Kerry is expected to publish, within the next several months, a framework for bringing negotiations to a conclusion. Recently, a group of senior Jewish, Muslim, and Christian leaders in the United States, including our Presiding Bishop, expressed public support of this framework, and we expect similar calls from religious leaders in the Holy Land in coming weeks. Most importantly, both Israeli and Palestinian leaders – while being guarded publicly about whether they will ultimately endorse the framework -have taken steps in recent weeks that demonstrate willingness to be flexible as they approach final-status negotiations. Make no mistake about it: this is what reconciliation looks like while it’s happening. This is the work that peels away the layers of the sinful and broken here-and-now and allows the true reconciliation already achieved by God to break through.

As we walk our Lenten journey together this year, we will focus on these negotiations, on different facets of the underlying conflict, and the ways in which we can support those Israeli and Palestinian leaders who are working toward peace with justice. We will invite you to join us in advocacy on a variety of subjects related to this process. But for the moment, at the dawn of Lent, we invite you to meditate upon reconciliation. We invite you to meditate on the fact that Israeli and Palestinian leaders already are inching toward the costly space in which true reconciliation can occur. And we invite you to meditate upon the fact that there is a role in this for each of us.

To some Christians here in the United States or elsewhere far from the Holy Land, the conflict may seem faraway, or abstract, or intractable. Or, we may so identify with one side of the conflict or the other, with one perspective of justice or peace or security, that talking about reconciliation without first talking about various underlying issues dear to us may seem like folly or worse. But, those who are living in the reality of the conflict are working conscientiously to walk another road, and it’s now our job to encourage them, and all peacemakers, to keep walking. It is they who remind us that reconciliation is not a fruit to be achieved when other ends are met; reconciliation is the mission of God – indeed it is who God is, and thus the mission of God’s people – and both a means and end unto itself.

As Bishop Suheil Dawani has said, it is the role of Christians like us to “work together with people of other faiths to encourage the politicians to put politics aside and meet midway, where all people are equal; the marginalized and the powerful, the poor and the wealthy, men and women, children and the elderly, regardless of faith or social status.”

How lovely are the messengers that preach us the Gospel of Peace! A blessed Lent to all of you.

— Alexander D. Baumgarten is director of justice and advocacy ministries for The Episcopal Church