Start at the Resurrection

A Reflection for Easter by Associate Director, Rev. Caroline Hamilton-Arnold

Light streams in the dome at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Light streams in the dome at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

In the fall of last year, I had the opportunity to travel with a Global Ministries delegation to visit many of our partners in the Middle East. The itinerary was full - four countries in less than fourteen days. Most of our days were spent witnessing the work and receiving the stories of partners who are working to provide trauma care to children, to equip young women to organize on behalf of their communities, to ensure refugees have the supplies they need for the coming winter, and to stand in witness against abuses and atrocities. Though we spent little time exploring "holy sites," it was a deeply sacred experience.

On our last morning in Jerusalem, we decided to participate in a tradition that stretches back centuries and make the pilgrimage along the Via Dolorosa - the journey Jesus made between Pilate's court and the cross on Golgatha. The path, which people have walked in some form for hundreds of years, traditionally begins at the site of Jesus' conviction at ends at the site of the garden tomb.

We discovered, however, that on the day of our travel, the Allenby Bridge between Israel-Palestine and Jordan would be closing early for observances of Rosh Hashana. In order to make the pilgrimage and still reach the border crossing before it closed, we determined to walk the path in reverse. Rather than begin at the approximate site of the Pilate's court and travel west, we would begin at the end, so to speak, at the garden tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Inside the church, built on the site that tradition identifies at the tomb where Jesus was laid, are six unique chapels for the six branches of orthodox Christianity. As we were there on a Sunday morning, services were held in these chapels. Coptic songs blended with Armenian chants and Roman Catholic liturgy, all mingling in air perfumed by incense burned by the Greek Orthodox priest. The candles of thousands of worshipers and pilgrims lit the space with a holy, dancing light. Protestants and Roman Catholics refer to the place as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, meaning the church of the holy tomb, but in that moment the Orthodox name seemed more fitting - the Church of the Resurrection.

It was from this sacred space, where Christians from around the world converged to praise the Risen Christ, that we began our pilgrimage-in-reverse. The inverted order is theologically appropriate, in a way, for the message of Easter, of life overcoming death, upends our expectation of the way things progress. We expect beginnings to precede endings. Yet, the resurrection declares that (to quote the popular hymn) "in our end is our beginning." The cycle and sense of the Christian story is of beginnings and endings and new beginnings.

As we made our way along the Via Dolorosa, each stop and encounter filtered through our experience of beginning at the end. The incense clung to our clothes, bringing the perfume of the resurrection into the moments of suffering and grief. We did not avoid the other parts of the road or the story. We confronted the death, the betrayal, and the corrupt and brutal systems that condemned Christ to the cross, but we did so from a place of the profound hope of Easter morning.

Our world can feel like one, long via dolorosa, a never-ending way of suffering. The work of Week of Compassion puts us in proximity to and relationship with those who are struggling most severely. Human corruption and conflict drive people from their homes and exacerbate shortages of food and water. The oceans are rising, and rain patterns are changing, putting vulnerable populations at even greater risk. Children continue to live in hunger; parents continue to live in fear of what tomorrow may bring.

We come to this work, however, having first been to the place of resurrection. Which means, we come to this work with the perspective of hope, of faith in what God is doing and can do. Amidst the terrors of war, our partners are cultivating peace - through art in Bethlehem and education along the Syrian border. In the midst of conflict and severe drought in the Horn of Africa, people receive life saving food and water. Along with the stories of hunger are the stories of orange trees planted in Nicaragua, now bearing abundant fruit.

To start at the resurrection is to begin always from a place of life rather than death, a place of hope rather than resignation, a place of anticipating abundance rather than fearing scarcity. In this blessed Easter season, may you experience the hope of the risen Christ, and may your journeys start at the resurrection.