This year I am celebrating the dying and rising of Christ not as a parish priest serving my own people in Wales, but as a pilgrim and shepherd assisting at the shrine of Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Ah, Bosnia – a country which has suffered much in recent years. Like Israel itself, its geographic position between East and West has made it a convenient buffer between great powers and their vassal states. As Israel stood between Egypt and Babylon, so the dukedom of Hercegovina was able to broker trade between Christendom to the west and the Ottoman Empire to the east; and it was convenient for all the Great Powers after World War II that Yugoslavia should be a non-aligned communist state so that the Warsaw Pact would not site its weapons off the shores of Italy.
For the great Easter Vigil, the parish’s leaders chose four readings from the Old Testament – Creation, the near-sacrifice of Isaac, the Crossing of the Red Sea (which of course may never be omitted on Easter night) and Ezekiel’s lament over fallen Israel (Ezk 36:16-28).
In Ezekiel’s day, Israel had been conquered by foreign powers and the Jewish people scattered throughout the Babylonian empire. The prophet was inspired to understand that God’s people had lost their divinely-granted security because they had not kept God’s law but turned to violence and worshipped idols. But this in turn meant that God’s Chosen People were now exiles and refugees, which didn’t look good for the God who had chosen them! The solution? God would restore his people to the Promised Land and cleanse their hearts so they could become a people of integrity worthy of His Holy Name. The Biblical Books of Ezra and Nehemiah chart this return from exile – but by the time Jesus Christ was born, Israel enjoyed only limited religious autonomy as a province of the Roman Empire.
Fast-forward to the Balkan conflicts of the late 20th Century. Ethnic Croats who claimed to be Roman Catholic, ethnic Serbs who claimed to be Orthodox Christians, and Bosnian Muslims, descendants of locals who had accepted Islam under Ottoman rule, were held together in an uneasy tension by the iron grip of Marshal Tito. The fall of the Iron Curtain and the death of Tito spelled chaos for the uneasy state of Yugoslavia. The Serbian republic, aspiring to maintain a ‘Greater Serbia’, failed to prevent Croatia from breaking away as an independent state. Bosnia was itself a microcosm of the greater conflict with all three factions present in significant numbers within its borders. The West, in the shape of NATO, eventually intervened – but too late to prevent massive loss of life. No honour was done to the name of Christ by the way Catholic and Orthodox agitated and fought for supremacy.
“My great name has been profaned among the nations,” says the Lord, “but for the sake of my great name I will cleanse you and give you a new heart.” In Medjugorje, something remarkable has happened. A centre for peace has been planted in the heart of war. In due course, Mother Church will pronounce on whether we should truly believe that the Queen of Peace has personally revealed herself to local children. But it is already apparent that the message of peace has taken root in this difficult Balkan soil.
I wonder what the villagers of Medjugorje, and the pilgrims from within the former Yugoslavia, heard in these words of Ezekiel? They have known, as I have not, the pain of their own family members fighting and sometimes dying in a bloody conflict. They have lived with the claims that the Queen of Heaven was calling for ‘peace, peace, peace’ before, during and after the war which ravaged their land. They have seen this isolated Herzegovinan cluster of hamlets become a world-renowned shrine where sins are forgiven, lives are changed, and charitable works bless the nation and the world. What works? One need only mention Mary’s Meals (food for schoolchildren in the developing world), Cenacolo (communities of support for recovering addicts) and the local Mother’s Village (for orphans, refugees and others in distress).
Good works are not without their price. Every charity requires financial giving by many, and an investment of love and labour by a few. At the end of the Jubilee Year 1933, the parishioners of Medjugorje agreed to erect a cross on the hill now known as Krizevac – Cross Mountain. One might imagine Our Lord and the Blessed Mother looking down from heaven and choosing a suitable place to bring a message of peace. There would need to be room for the church to expand its facilities to greet the many pilgrims who would come. There would need to be places for spiritual exercises – a lesser hill to honour the mother of God and a great mountain leading to the Holy Cross. The local people, too, would find a small measure of prosperity from the business of welcoming pilgrims – who should receive this blessing? The soils of Hercegovina, where Franciscan missionary priests sustained the faith despite the oppression of the Ottoman Empire over 800 years, perhaps? The same Hercegovina where 20th century Catholics resisted the status that came with embracing Communism by stubbornly persisting in their Catholic faith and practice?
The choice to be faithful to God is a choice that often brings hardship. The Bible contains wonderful stories of salvation (think of Daniel in the lion’s den, followed by Daniel’s story of the three young men thrown into the firey furnace who escape unscathed) but also of sacrifice. Elijah and Jeremiah received no thanks for standing against the rulers of their times. The Books of the Maccabees include stories of heroic sacrifices including the mother and seven sons who refuse to eat pigs’ flesh under pain of death. In our own age we might think of the 21 Coptic Christians beheaded by ISIS or the 7 Tibherine monks of Algeria who knew they risked death by planting their monastery there.
And Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac – his only son!
Imagine this from Isaac’s point of view! He discovered himself standing in a long line of people who are sorely tested as part of God’s plan. Zechariah struck dumb, Saul blinded, John the Baptist imprisoned and later beheaded, Mary’s heart pierced by a sword, and with St Joseph fleeing to Egypt as a refugee. It is not so easy to love a God who requires one to be treated thus! And yet all of these came through their trials and are recognised as saints.
We find also another level of meaning in these words from Genesis. Abraham stands as a symbol of God the Father. Isaac is a symbol of the human race, bound by sin. Why would God ask for the ‘only son’ (the entire human race) to be destroyed? Earlier in Genesis, we see the same divine sentiment expressed in the parable of the Flood… humanity is not worthy to live. What can redeem it? A ram, caught in a bush. A sheep, fixed to a tree. A grown-up lamb on a cross of wood. Jesus Christ, God-made-man, innocent and of infinite worth.
God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should inherit eternal life. The Holy Spirit hovered upon the waters of creation. Noah and Moses passed through water to a place of redemption. Ezekiel prophesied cleansing water to renew the heart. Those who would inherit eternal life are invited to take the waters of baptism and renew their commitment on Easter Night.
God did not spare his own son, but allowed him to enter our human existence and suffer – to suffer tiredness, grief, rejection, betrayal, and even death upon the Cross. The water of baptism is not immunity from the sufferings of this world; indeed, it may call the believer to share with Christ a ‘baptism of fire’ which demonstrates love without limit, incarnate once again in space and in time.
We live as pilgrims between hope and fear; the hope of heaven, and the weight of the Cross we must carry on our way. It has been my personal experience that God often allows me to experience exceptional burdens in Lent and great relief in the season of Easter, but perhaps not everyone’s life is so well attuned to the rhythm of the Christian calendar. If you are still living a personal Lent, may the Risen Christ bring you soon to the joys of Easter. Christ is Risen! Risen Indeed! Alleluia!