EASTER REFLECTION (2017): LIVING THE MEMORY OF PASCHAL-EVENT IN NIGERIA TODAY
his Easter offers us once more the opportunity to reflect on the mystery of our faith in Jesus Christ, its divine message to us all as individuals, a people and nation. In the first place, Easter is the center and most important liturgical celebration and season in the life of the church and every Christian. It is the summit of the church’s celebration and witness of our faith in the Risen Christ. The Easter-Event commemorates the Passion, Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection of our Savior and Lord Jesus Christ. It is through the Paschal (Easter-Event) that God through Jesus Christ redeemed the world and humanity. We gained our salvation in God through Christ’s Paschal-Event.
Christianity is the only world religion where death is made a condition for life. Of all the world religions and their founders, Jesus Christ is the only religious figure that made death the condition for life, the agenda of his mission and call for discipleship and faith in him. Without the Cross there is no Christianity! That is to say, ‘Without the Good Friday of the Crucifixion, there will be no Easter Sunday of the Resurrection.’
This is why Jesus started from the beginning to prepare his disciples and instruct them, especially, the Twelve Apostles, about the type of death he was about to undergo for the redemption and salvation of the world. Because unless they participate in that mystery they will have nothing to share with Christ after his death on the Cross and Resurrection. In the final analysis, the memory of the Paschal Mystery is the major thing that unites and binds mystically, Jesus Christ and his disciples after his death on the Cross. It is the new covenant, divine bond in the power of the Holy Spirit – the gift of the Risen Christ and the Father to the church, which now binds him with believers, the baptized in Christ.
The Paschal-Event is the highest manifestation of God the Father’s love through Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit to the world and humankind. It is a celebration and commemoration of God’s highest act of love and redemption of the world and humanity achieved through the death and crucifixion of Jesus Christ on the Cross.
Our reflection this Easter, therefore, has been entitled: “Living the Memory of the Paschal-Event in Nigeria Today.”
For me, the implication of our memory of the Paschal Mystery at Easter celebration this year, in particular, for Nigeria, is about the importance of a shared memory for a people and nation-building. Perhaps, it serves some purpose for us to begin our reflection by raising the following questions:
What memory do we think God has about his vineyard, Nigeria, the leaders or rather guards and workers placed there? Perhaps, a memory of those who killed his people, messengers, prophets, intellectuals, opposition politicians, poor farmers, traders, etc.; that engages in ethnic-cleansing of targeted groups, ethnic or religious? A memory of a state or leadership that does not care about God’s entire vineyard, diversity of its inhabitants but only about a selected few, their own clan, ethnic and religious group?
From a subjective perspective: what is the memory of God about me? What is my memory of my country whether at home or Diasporas? Who and what do I remember of my country. Perhaps, my family – wife, husband, children, friends, ethnic or religious group only? What of the state? What memory have I about my nation and state?
We shall be guided in the reflection by the Gospel narrative of the prophecy of the Passion of Jesus Christ as recounted in Mark 10:32-34. It goes as follows:
“Once more taking the Twelve aside he began to tell them what was going to happen to him: ‘Now we are going to Jerusalem, and the Son of man is about to be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes.’ They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the gentiles, who will mock and spit at him and scourge him and put him to death; and after three days he will rise again.” (Mk 10:32-34).
The main intention of Jesus Christ in spending most of his time in instructing the disciples about the type of death he was about to undergo is to prepare them ahead of time, of the necessity to live and prolong his Paschal Mystery as witnesses of his death and resurrection, till the end of time. Living and witnessing to the memory of the Paschal Mystery is now the new identity and mission of all the believers in Jesus Christ.
Thus, the passage of the prophecy of the Passion is recorded by all the three synoptic Gospels. (Cf. Mt 20:17-19; Lk 18:31-33). The citation above which we took from the Gospel of Mark, is the third prophecy of the Passion of Jesus as recorded in the gospels. The first is as follows:
“There he began to teach them that the Son of man was destined to suffer grievously, and to be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and to be put to death; and after three days to rise again…” (Mk 8:31-33; see also Mt 21:42; 16:21-23; Lk 9:22).
Finally, the second prophecy of the Passion is as follows:
“After leaving that place they made their way through Galilee; and he did not want anyone to know, because he was instructing his disciples; he was telling them, ‘The Son of man will be delivered into the power of men; they will put him to death; and three days after he has been put to death he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he said and were afraid to ask him” (Mk 9:30-32; see also Mt 17:22-23; Lk 9:44-45; John 7:1).
The disciples did not understand the words of Jesus in this teaching concerning the Paschal prophecy. Thus, they discussed among themselves: ‘Who is the greatest’: - more intelligent, beautiful, rich, etc. They were thinking in the logic of competition and jealousy. But Jesus said to them: “Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant” (Mk 10:43).
Jesus took a child whom he set among them and embraced, and he said to them: “Anyone who welcomes a little child such as this in my name, welcomes me; and anyone who welcomes me, welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mk 9:36-37). If you want to be the first, the greatest in the office, in the church, family, Jesus challenges them, then, you must be identified with me like a child. It is identification in gestures, actions and words, without moralism, that is, in whatever situation you are; Christ must be there.
Here Christ is asking his disciples, each one of them: What type of person are you? Are you in the logic of Christ or of your own? Who is the “other” for you? The person that you meet every day in your life, who is that person for you? The humanity of your conscience, knowledge, life, relationship, etc.
This gospel narrative also linked the teaching of Jesus about the Paschal Memory with the washing of the feet of the disciples. To Simon Peter who in piety and out of respect, wanted to prevent Jesus from washing his feet, Jesus said, ‘If I don’t do that – wash your feet, you do not have anything in common with me.” (John 13:6-8).
Having something in common with Jesus Christ is entering into true life of Christ himself, that is, the life he shares with His Father. Thus, the preparation for the Paschal Memory that Jesus makes for his disciples is such that the disciples live in this grace of Christ, to accept the better condition for living the life of grace.
In the Gospel of Mark, there is no mention of new commandments, though it is implied. This is preparation of the disciples to live a new covenant. In other words, Christ is here asking his disciples and us all: ‘What do I put-in in my life to live the new commandment?
Furthermore, what Jesus in this Gospel passage of the Paschal prophecy and memory is proposing to all his disciples (including us today) is to live this new life. The passage is about the experience of his passion, which is lived, not just through intellectual knowledge, administration, activism, etc., though it touches all these; but especially, about our experience, invitation of living this paschal just like Christ (Mk 8:27-29).
This is the background for appreciating Peter’s profession of faith, as we discussed in our last Christmas reflection, published in this column (entitled: “Christmas and Jesus’ Nativity Narrative: Implications for Inclusive Leadership”).
“Who do people say I am? And who do you say I am?” (Mk 8:27-30; Mt 16:13-20; Lk 9:18-21). After this profession of faith by Peter about Christ’s messiahship, Jesus began to say something strange of himself, the announcement of his passion, that is the first prophecy of the Passion (Mk 8:31-33). However, after that Peter called him apart to admonish him. But Jesus began to rebuke Peter instead: “Get behind me Satan! Because your thoughts are not of God’s but of human beings” (Mk 8:32-33).
In this case, Jesus chooses for the disciples the way of having access to God. In this admonition of Peter, Israel’s perception of the Messiah is implied. There is a contradiction in the way of seeing things by Peter: ‘If you are a Messiah, then you should be known by the people as their liberator.
However, Jesus invites Peter in this case, to come out from his logic of seeing things and to begin to see things from the logic and perspective of God.
After this, Jesus began to talk of those who will not see death until the coming of the Son of God. In this gospel narrative, Jesus is putting in order the condition for entering into the scheme of life of God. That is, submitting all my life in the hands of God just as Christ who put his life in the hands of the Father.
We should not forget that in the Gospel of Mark, this passage of the Passion prophecy followed immediately after the gospel discourse on the condition of following Christ: “If anyone wants to be a follower of me, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mk 8:34-48).
Discipleship, entering into the life of Jesus and the Father, in the power of the Holy Spirit, is through the logic of the Word of God and the Sacrament of God, who is Jesus Christ himself. Jesus came to enter into communion with all, men and women and not with a few.
This is the meaning of Jesus’ response to his disciples about who will be first in office. The response is Jesus’ gift, to enter into the life of the Trinity, it is to live the Paschal, the life of love of the Father through the Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit. It means leaving behind all that are obstacles to living the life of Jesus Christ. All the human situations, which prevents human beings from living the life of the Paschal Mystery.
In this teaching of Jesus on the Paschal Mystery and Memory, we see also how Jesus is not scared to enter into the existential problems of his disciples. He wants these concerns and fears of the disciples to come out openly, discussed, resolved once for all.
Jesus spoke of how he will be handed over to the Romans and be maltreated by them. The disciples encouraged him and promised closeness. But Jesus answered them: You don’t know what you are saying: ‘Are you ready to drink the chalice that I am to drink?’
What is at stake here is discipleship characterized by relationship and reciprocity. Once again, it is entering into the life of Jesus: If you enter into this life of Jesus, you also will give your life, just like him. It is thinking according to the point of view of God, the supernatural mission of the One he sent into the world for our redemption.
Reciprocity, relationship, and love, all means taking upon yourself the fragility and the fears of the other. You are not to ask to be liberated from the fears of others, but make it your duty to take them upon yourself.
Furthermore, Jesus did not go to Jerusalem to occupy an office, but to offer his life as ransom for many.
This brings us to those things that help us live the Paschal Mystery every day of our lives as believers in Jesus Christ. I mean the prophetic gestures that open us to the factual and focal points of Christ’s Paschal Mystery, which came at historical moment, which can not be repeated.
The Eucharistic gestures, for example, puts and makes us live and prolong the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ. The Paschal Memory is a mystery, a reality that we have to live always. We are bearers of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. The Eucharist is the fruit of the Paschal Mystery.
Before in Christian theology, we were used to seeing things in terms of ‘sacred and profane.’ Today, however, in the light of insights from the Vatican II theology, it is not a favored expression as before. This is because all is now ‘sanctified and made holy through Jesus Christ.’ We are living in a redeemed world, “recreated” cosmos and redeemed humanity through Christ, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, according to God the Father’s original salvific plan.
If today we participate at Easter celebrations, it is not out of our mere piety, or as result of our personal suffering, though these are good things, but because, today, we live the Paschal Mystery in the joy of the Risen Christ.
In other words, the passages about the Paschal Mystery are not about overcoming suffering, but rather about something already overcome through Jesus Christ. It is about the meeting of the Gospel and created reality. It is the meeting of the Gospel with the world religions and culture, e.g., the meeting of the Gospel with our African culture and traditional religion of our forbears.
Sometimes, the experience of the Gospel puts us in relationship with God. However, sometimes also, our own experience or interpretation of reality can become an obstacle to entering into the life of the Gospel. This invites us to conversion, to live the experience of Jesus – ‘taking the form of a slave …’ (Phil 2:6). In this way, we touch the root of Christian experience. This is the type of conversion every Christian is being invited to experience.
Implications: Living the Memory of the Paschal-Event in Nigeria Today
Some years ago, Prof. Chinua Achebe (of blessed memory), was asked to tell his audience what Nigeria means for him. Achebe used the Nigerian national Anthem in responding to the journalist who posited the question to him.
According to him, Nigeria’s first national Anthem, which was given us by a British house-wife has the image of a mother: ‘our motherland.’ The second Anthem, written by a group of Nigerian intellectuals, uses the image of a ‘fatherland.’ Then Achebe said:
“To me, Nigeria is neither a father nor a mother. Nigeria is a child, a gift, with enormous talent.”
However, Achebe was quick to add, “Nigeria may be a mother or a father sometime in future, but for that to happen our generation has to make it happen.”
No one tells a child who the mother is. Between a child and parents there is a shared experience that even transcends that of mere blood relationship. This is why an adopted child, who does not share the blood-tie with his adopted parents, feels every inch a full member of the adopted family.
You are mother or father not just, because you share blood-tie with your children, but especially, because you have merited that name and title (mother or father) by the way you raised and have taken care of your children and family right from their birth until death separates you from them.
In the Old Testament, when did the people of Israel begin to identify themselves as God’s Chosen people and nation? Certainly, it was only after the people’s escape from slavery in Egypt, and the Exodus experience in the Desert. In that dramatic experience, Israel as a people experienced themselves and nation as God’s own possession. Israel experienced the saving hands and closeness of God in those most dramatic annals of their history in the Old Testament. In the Exodus experience, Israel came to know God as a loving and faithful One. That experience confirmed their faith in God, who had entered into eternal covenant with their Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This is why Israel had promised God never to worship any other god but Him and only Him. God then comes to be known as the God of Israel.
With regard to the theme of our reflection and generation, we may ask, ‘what is it that unites the Blacks in America today?’ The answer is that it is their shared history of experience of slavery and racial discrimination in a White dominated society and environment.
Another question is, ‘what is it that unites Black Africans more than any other thing else today? It is their shared history of slavery and colonialism at the hands of the West and Arabs. We may also ask, ‘what is it that unites Europe today?’ Why have Europe insisted in European Union and common currency in spite of the growing disaffections? The answer is simple: the Europeans shared common memory of the horrors of World War II.
Again, the point we are making is that a people as such, is NOT defined by blood-ties only, but by a shared memory. We have just reflected on how Jesus spent most part of his earthly ministry in instructing and initiating his disciples, especially, the Twelve into the mystery and memory of his Passion, Death and Resurrection. In Baptism as Christians, we were initiated into this mystery of Christ and invited to live and prolong it in our lives and society.
If a Nigerian is strangled today in the streets of Rome, New York, New Delhi, London, Paris, etc., does the state (nation) as a mother or a father, care and come to the aid of the citizen? What of those citizens killed in cold-blood in their homes and villages by the terrorist groups, the Fulani Herdsmen militia in Nigeria? Had Nigerian state ever cared sincerely and transparently, about the blood of those innocent men, women, young and children wasted by the Fulani Herdsmen terrorist militia in Agatu (Benue State), Uzo-Uwani and Attakwu villages (Enugu State), Southern Kaduna pogrom, and many other places in the country? Where is the state (mother or father) in all these? More significantly, where is the often talked about ‘Nigeria unity’ in all these?
What of the recklessness with which means of livelihood of traders from Eastern Nigeria living in the commercial city of Lagos are demolished and the people themselves rendered jobless and useless, on regular basis by this action of Lagos State government? Where is the motherhood or fatherhood of the state or nation here? What of the apparent recklessness and brutality with which the military and law enforcement agencies have been killing and suppressing some targeted groups and people: the well documented and continued military brutality and atrocity committed against the unarmed pro-Biafra and Igbo youths in Eastern Nigeria, the Shiite Muslims in Kaduna State, etc.?
Few days ago, there was a terrorist attack in a subway train station in St. Petersburg, Russia. In less than 24 hours, President Putin of Russia was at the scene to see things himself and to direct personally, both the rescue operation and the apprehension of the culprits of the deadly blast. He travelled from Moscow to come to Petersburg. All state institutions were mobilized to attend to this situation of bomb blast at the Metro-Train Station in St. Petersburg.
Moreover, some weeks ago also, there was a similar terrorist attack in the Parliament Building in Westminster, London. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, because of that incident, cancelled her pre-arranged travel for an important European Union meeting in Brussels. The whole United Kingdom institutions and government, including the Royal family, mobilized to respond promptly, with dedication, transparence, justice and rule of law, to the challenges posed by that most dreaded bomb blast at the Parliament Building. That is typical example of how a truly, free nation-state and government function!
Sometime last year, a young Italian student, studying in Cairo, Egypt was mysteriously, murdered there. Since then, Italy, with all its institutions, mobilized to see that their slain citizen gets justice and that Egypt will never get free of this tragedy without paying the price.
The older generations may still remember the Entebbe, Uganda incident, how Israel risked everything in those days, just to salvage their citizens held in hostage in the Ugandan Airport by the security officers of the dictator Idi Amin of Uganda. Again, here we meet how a real nation-state functions and responds to maltreatment of its citizens in foreign lands. Can we say the same thing with regard to Nigeria as a nation-state and its relations with Nigerian citizens in Diasporas, who are experiencing new forms of xenophobia attacks and slavery because of the new anti-immigration laws in industrialized countries of the Northern Hemisphere?
We could go on and on to give more examples of how serious and free nations-states put the welfare and security of their citizens as the first priority of the government. What we can only add here, however, is that such is the condition for promoting unity and healthy co-existence in a nation-state by those in power. Unity does not come about through deceitful slogans, media sponsored blackmailing, harassment of opposition members, intellectuals, ethnic cleansing of perceived enemy groups, disobedience of court orders, etc.
Naturally, citizens of states or nations run on justice and freedom, where government’s priority is welfare and security of the masses, do not need anyone to preach to them about patriotism or national unity. The emotional link of citizens with their nation-state is something that comes naturally through government’s commitment in living-up to the ideals of a nation-state: inclusive leadership, promotion of justice, freedom, honesty, love of all the people that constitute the nation, without discrimination of any form.
A young Nigerian, scored a higher mark in JAMB exams but because of his state of origin (ethnicity and religion), was denied admission in the university. His colleague from the favored state, ethnic and religious group, whose score was below the required cut-mark was, instead, offered the admission in the same university and country, Nigeria. Now, how do we expect the former student denied admission, on the basis of ethnic and religious differences, to feel? Would one expect him or her to develop emotional love for his country? What does the slogan for Nigerian unity represents for this psychological tortured and wounded Nigerian youth?
The same thing applies to that Nigerian youth job seeker, who experiences similar thing in various places and government ministries he had applied for job. The discrimination based on ethnic and religious differences, is an unwritten law in Nigeria. The examples mentioned here are just a tip in the iceberg. There are many of such in almost all the strata of Nigeria’s public life as a nation-state. It is already the established culture and unwritten system Nigeria is governed and operating since its history as a nation state, especially, in the past two years.
Once more, our starting point is: What is it that defines a people or nation? Is it blood tie? What does it mean to be a people? What creates unity in a nation of people of diverse cultures? What are the ingredients that make a nation-state?
The ingredients that make a nation-state, certainly, should include: shared history; long years of co-existence in love, rule of law, justice, truth, honesty and freedom; a major religion – predominantly shared by majority of the citizens; one language. In short, transparent and selfless leadership of its political class.
Again, one may ask, ‘What is my memory of how my nation-state identified and suffered with me in moment of difficulties?’ When Jesus Christ was on the Cross, the Mother was there; and the Father came and justified him.
What unites, creates unity and sense of pride of one’s nation is, ‘when the state is well founded, structured, governed by rule of law, justice, honesty and freedom, functioning as a truly democratic, and free state. When any of these essential ingredients of a nation-state is lacking or suppressed, the foundation of the state itself is compromised and jeopardized. The state or nation, as such, no longer exists. The state functions, when for example, it ‘rejoices and suffers with any of its citizens, or section that is rejoicing or suffering?’
After the resurrection, the disciples of Jesus began to live a shared life in the Paschal Mystery. A new community, a new Israel, in fact, a new Church came into being through shared memory of Christ’s Paschal-Event. As the author of the Acts of the Apostles puts:
“The whole group of believers was united, heart and soul; no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, as everything they owned was held in common. The Apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus with great power, and they were all accorded great respect” (Acts 4:32-33).
The Acts of the Apostles adds:
“None of their members (of the early church) was ever in want, as all those who owned land or houses would sell them, bring the money from the sale of them, to present it to the Apostles; it is then distributed to any who might be in need” (Acts 4:34-35).
This is the effect of the Easter-Event that we should not allow to escape us in Nigeria today. At a time when the lives of the common man or woman has no meaning again for those in leadership position, how do we introduce our people, especially, those invested with leadership positions, to the mystery of Easter? Jesus told his disciples: “If you remain in my word, you will know the truth and gain life for yourself” (John 8:31-32).
The disciples took seriously the last words of the historical Jesus to them. The early Christians were able to discover a new source of life through their identification with the Risen Christ, their observance of the last words of the crucified and Risen Lord. The power of the last words of the man on the gibbet begins to impart life force in all its fullness to the disciples. These are words of love and power he bequeaths, after death, to his disciples. It is precisely in his death and resurrection, with its soteriological meaning, that Jesus transforms the lives of his disciples and created through them the new community, new Israel, the church.
This means that it is through our prolongation of the memory of the Risen Christ, obedience to his words, and participation in the Eucharist, allowing these to transform our lives, that we can transform our society and recreate it in a way everyone could feel proud of being a Nigerian. Seen from this perspective, our living the Paschal Memory becomes therefore, one way of our participating in the prolongation of that Paschal mystery itself today.
This is because we have the Holy Spirit to help us in this task of recreating Nigeria. The Holy Spirit is the gift of the Risen Christ to the believing community. As a divine bond, divine power, the Holy Spirit sustains mutual interaction and sharing of life between the believer and the Risen Christ. The bond of the Holy Spirit, a divine life, is our force and strength through the power of the Risen Christ, as we begin this new mission of recreating Nigeria in the memory of the divine redeemer for the benefits of all who live and earn their livelihood in that geographical entity called Nigeria.
Christ says, ‘do this in memory of me.’ This is about the final revelation of God in Christ and the prolongation of the Paschal Mystery in the life and society of the believers. It is about how God prepared his people in Nigeria for the coming, death and resurrection of his only begotten Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is the intervention of God in Christ in the world. Indeed, in Nigeria.
Are we prepared, ready to respond to the task the Risen Christ has given us in our time and generation?
A pleasant Easter to everyone!
Fr. Francis Anekwe Oborji is a Roman Catholic priest. He lives in Rome where he is professor of missiology (mission theology) in the Pontifical University.