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April 12, 2010

African EasterBut they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.”

     ~ Luke 24: 29

It is Holy Saturday 2010. At the front of the small parish Church of St. Therese of the Child Jesus in the town of Kipushi, Democratic Republic of Congo, a large paschal fire is already burning as the members of the Congregation gather to celebrate the Easter Vigil.  They come dressed in bright, beautiful and celebrative colors and carrying the candles they have purchased in the small shops around town. They fill not only the benches of the Church but the many small plastic chairs that have been added along the sides of the church and down the main aisle, as well as into the foyer and out onto the front porch.  The Church is decorated with strings of colored and flashing lights, many hand cut and fashioned decorations, even an electric lantern that will flash with the other smaller lights during the singing of the Gloria.  In the excitement of meeting and conversation as friends and family gather, there is already not only an air of expectancy but a sense of deep life, love, and hope that already manifests the truth of Resurrection.

     Shortly after 8:00 pm the fire and the Easter Candle are blessed, and the procession enters the Church.  First comes the deacon carrying the Easter Candle, three times chanting “Light of Christ”.  As he does so the servers share the light from the candle with the members of the Congregation who light each other’s candles.  Then the music begins and the cross bearer, the thurifer, and the other altar servers, dressed in white cassocks with red crosses enter dancing rhythmically to the music. They are followed by the young people to be baptized, who are dressed in white and also dancing, along with their catechists.  Then come all the various ministers of the liturgy and finally the parish priest who will preside.

     For the next three and a half hours in song, dance, prayer and proclamation the new life of Jesus in and among us all is celebrated.  In this believing community in this small town in one of the world’s poorest countries the reality of the victory of life over death and hope over despair is expressed by people who not only believe it but seem to know it to be true.  In commenting on Luke 9:9 (“Say nothing until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.”) Oswald Chambers says that the Lord told his disciples and is teaching us that one should not speak or teach “until the life of the Risen Christ so dominates you that you understand what the historic Christ taught. When you get to the right state on the inside, the word which Jesus has spoken is so plain that you are amazed you did not see it before. ”

     For those of us raised in the Christian faith tradition the Resurrection of Jesus is often a belief, an idea, a doctrine, and a hope.  Yet, as a stranger in this place so different from where I live out my life, I sensed that among these people the Resurrection was not merely idea, doctrine or even a vague hope, but that it was rather a living personal reality.  They didn’t just think about or even just believe the words they were hearing and the event they were remembering, many of them understood and knew it.

     “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”  (Luke 24: 32)  How is it in the midst of lives of such deprivation and want that the life of not only the suffering Jesus but of the resurrected Jesus is so recognized and lived?  Perhaps it is somehow actually due to the very pervasive and acknowledged experience of want and need which constitutes the lives of the people in this Church.  Life here is concerned with the needs of day to day existence.  As a result it is a life that is very simple.  There is always time here to walk outside, to speak to and welcome friends and share conversation with them, to share whatever food one has with those who arrive to visit, to hear and recognize the sounds of all the forms of life that surround us , and to experience joy in friendship, beauty, and the surprises of each moment.  For all the difficulty of life here, there is great attentiveness to what is given as it is given.  And this includes, so it seems, the deepest gift, the life of the Risen Jesus that is our deepest identity.

     The life of the people of Kipushi is not to be romanticized.  It is very difficult and it is filled with all the conflicts and contradictions that constitute the human experience in every time and place.  But, because the very basic needs are so great, there is no denying the fact that to be human is to be lacking, it is to be in want.  And this recognition of lack potentially evokes our capacity for a disposition of hospitality: “Stay with us because it is almost evening and the day is nearly over.”  There is no pretense of self-sufficiency but rather recognition of the need for each other, the need to welcome the stranger in his or her hunger but also to recognize that the stranger’s presence assuages my own hunger.  This is the experience of the Disciples on the way to Emmaus who not only welcome but urge the stranger to stay with them, to eat with them and thereby discover that this is the Lord.

     In the developed world of plenty, we can live lives of dissociation from our basic human reality with its pervasive lack and neediness.  Perhaps this is a part of the reason for the lack of vitality in our lives, our relationships, our prayer, and our worship.  Our goal is to be self-sufficient, and so we are wary of whomever or whatever might disturb us and the lives we have created.  The cost of this for us is not only a diminished life of relationship with others, but also a distance from “the right state on the inside”.  That right state is no less than the reality of the Resurrection, it is the Christ form within.

     On Easter we celebrate the triumph of a life that is our origin and destiny.  Much of our lives, however, we live an alternative life to this Risen Life, one that is of our own making.  For this alternative life, the Resurrection is but an idea, a belief, or at best a hope.  But, we can know not only the truth but the life of the Resurrection the more we make a space within us for that Life. If we do so, our deepest identity in Christ may, in time, begin to dominate our lives.  As the people of Kipushi teach us, making that space requires that we awaken to our inner poverty and pay attention to the riches that are offered to us in the presence of the stranger who appeals to us both from without and within.

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Last updated: 11/24/10.