“Life is stronger than death and light is stronger than darkness.” It is the message of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I in this exclusive interview ahead of the Holy Easter, which this year Christians of all confessions will celebrate on the same day. It’s a coincidence that rarely occurs in history, since the Orthodox Church refer to the Julian calendar, while Protestant and Catholics follow the Gregorian calendar. The next coincidence will be in 2025, the year marking 1700 years since the Council of Nicaea (325), the first ecumenical Council of all the Christian world, that at the time was still undivided. The interview with Patriarch Bartholomew takes place at a time when the Holy Week is soaked with the blood of Copt Orthodox Christians in Egypt after the attacks of Tanta and Alexandria on Easter Sunday. We asked the Patriarch to share his thoughts on the unity of the Churches and the ecumenism of blood.
This year, the Churches of East and West will celebrate Easter on the same date. It’s the celebration of the same Christian faith in Jesus Christ’s victory over death. What message the united Christians of all Churches can give together at Easter in a world that today is facing shadows of pain, division, death? Indeed, 2017 marks an occasion of joint celebration by the Churches of East and West of the life-giving Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This does not happen every year, but whenever it does occur, it is a powerful reminder of the painful division among the Christian Churches as well as of our vocation and obligation to work toward greater reconciliation among Christian believers, for whom our Lord prayed on the night of His betrayal “that they should be one.” (John 17.21)
The truth is that, when we are united in our response to contemporary challenges and in our confrontation of modern crises, our message is always far more powerful and also far more credible. For the Resurrection is not simply a symbol of power and victory; it is primarily a sign of God’s love and compassion. It is out of love for the world that God became human, assumed flesh, died for our sins, and arose from the dead.
When we share in His divine compassion, then we too are able to experience and express the conviction that life is stronger than death and light is stronger than darkness.
This is why the theme of the Resurrection binds together all of our Christian teachings, traditions and realities. This year, Christians of all confessions – and all over the world – are able together to proclaim “the good tidings of great joy” that fills all creation on that splendid night of Easter. In the words of an Orthodox hymn on Holy Saturday night: “This is a sacred Easter, a delightful Easter, a joyful Easter, a new Easter, a holy Easter, a mystical Passover, a venerable Pascha, a pure Passover, a great Pascha, an Easter that sanctifies all the faithful and opens the gates of paradise.”
Churches will be united in the celebration of Easter in countries wounded by the wars as in the Middle East. This is the ecumenism of blood. What do the Christians of the West world want to say to their brothers and sisters of Syria and Iraq? Do You think that peace is still possible? Do You think that it could be possible that in this time of Easter, weapons can be silent for a day? Despite the conflicts and challenges, the suffering and struggle that we witness all around us, on the night of Christ’s resurrection we are still able to exclaim: “Christ is Risen!” We are able to profess that this night, as St. Gregory of Nyssa stressed so eloquently in the fourth-century, “shines more brightly than any other day.” This is because the Resurrection is not some utopian ideal or abstract dream. For the Orthodox, Christ’s Resurrection is intimately and inseparably linked to Christ’s Crucifixion.
The joy of the Resurrection cannot be isolated or disconnected from the pain of the Crucifixion.
We Orthodox recognize the triumphant God in the suffering God. We discern the ultimate exultation of Christ in His profound humiliation. So in Orthodox Churches, the notes of joy already echo in the sounds of Golgotha. That is precisely our vision of the Resurrection and our assurance of peace in the face of Christian persecution in the Middle East, but also in so many other parts of the world: in Europe, Northern Africa, and Asia. Christ promised that He would not leave His disciples as orphans, that He would be with us “all the days of our lives.” This is our only hope and source of optimism. Each year, then, on the great feast of Pascha, we remember not just an event that occurred two thousand years ago, but something that is very contemporary and real for us. This is why, on Holy Friday,
we can look at the cross and stare at all the evil, treachery, abuse and betrayal that occur in our world.
But then, on Holy Saturday, we can turn to the empty tomb and sense the anticipation of life and peace, as well as the celebration of light and joy.
We are called to look at the world and behold the dawn of new life and new hope.