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Easter Deferred
Christian Century
Taken from our journal and updates
By Elizabeth and Marthame Sanders

On the Thursday before Easter, Christians gathered all over Jerusalem to remember Christ's Last Supper. As we joined in worship at Redeemer Lutheran Church to commemorate the Passover feast Jesus shared with his disciples, we were again reminded of the Wednesday suicide blast that killed more than 20 Israelis as they celebrated Passover.  "This is my body broken for you," we heard in English, Arabic and German.  "This is my blood."

The church was stripped of ornamentation. Between Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday, the Christian sanctuary becomes a tomb, barren, desolate and pure. We read Psalm 118, as the disciples did that night: "God's steadfast love endures forever." Then we followed the disciples' footsteps out to the Garden of Gethsemane.  We kept vigil for a while, but like Peter, James and John, we all slowly drifted away. Betrayal, arrest and death soon follow.

On another Thursday, just one week earlier, we had celebrated the Palestinian Mother’s Day in Zababdeh, a Palestinian Christian village. In the church hall there were speeches, folk dances, patriotic songs, songs about family love—even the itsy-bitsy spider song sung by a choir of little children. In the middle of the celebration, a nationalistic skit presented a mother wailing over her dead son, surrounded by children. The girls wore traditional embroidered dresses and white headscarves; the boys were dressed as teachers, doctors and fighters, all carrying plastic weapons. The “dead” boy was wrapped in a Palestinian flag.

It was hard for us to watch this fairly accurate representation of a “martyr’s” funeral, especially when the boys waved their guns. It is difficult to sit on both sides of the fence when you are witnessing violent resistance to a violent military occupation. On the one hand, we acknowledge that (as international law affirms) people have a right to use violence to fight for their freedom. We remember that we Americans annually celebrate the freedom fighters who took up arms at our country’s beginning to liberate it from oppression. And oppression is indeed at its peak here, where Israel afflicts detentions, killings, closures, curfews, home demolitions and degradation on the Palestinian people.

But there is a difference between fighting against soldiers and killing civilians. And, even more, there is a difference between a political right and a moral one. As Christians, our first allegiance is to our faith, not to politics. And our faith makes clear that killing is wrong, and that the answer to violence should be love. And so we sat uncomfortably through the skit that illustrated a political right but a moral wrong.

As Israel and Palestine continue their immersion in a cycle of betrayal, desolation and death, there are times when we feel trapped between the devastation of Maundy Thursday and the hope of Easter Sunday.  This year especially, we desperately needed to hear the message of the resurrection and to see it manifested.  We looked forward to sharing services on Good Friday with the Melkites, the night of Holy Saturday with the Roman Catholics, and with a joyful ecumenical gathering Easter Sunday at the Garden Tomb.  We wanted to hear the communal affirmation that "Christ is Risen--He is Risen Indeed."

Friday morning we got a call. The Israeli army was moving into Ramallah, and Ariel Sharon had called up 20,000 reservists. No one knew what was going to happen.  Many expected a full-scale re-invasion of the West Bank.  We weighed our options and headed back to Zababdeh, for reasons of both safety and obligation.  Zababdeh's relative quiet beckoned over the uncertainty and fear that permeated East and West Jerusalem, and we wanted also to be with our friends, who now face even more desperate times.

Returning to Zababdeh, we were back in the middle of Lent. As a sign of unity, the churches in town celebrate Easter together according to the Orthodox calendar--this year, May 5th. (They also celebrate Christmas together, following the Western calendar.)  It was sadly fitting to come so close to the Easter proclamation of hope, that fulfillment of promise, and then to be
forced back to the desolate place of waiting and loss.

The news gets worse and worse. On April 2 Zababdeh had its first shaheed, or “martyr”, a young man killed as he shot at a military outpost near Jenin. We grieved for this waste of a young life and pondered the possibility of the Israeli army’s retribution against the town. The following day, after an excursion through a checkpoint and past many Israeli tanks to return some schoolchildren to their homes in a nearby village, we returned home heavy-hearted to face the terrible news on the television. CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera and many other stations blared forth the new developments - constantly changing, constantly repeated, blurring together in our minds as the hours passed. We realized that the horrifying scenes in Ramallah and Bethlehem might be repeated in villages throughout Palestine, including Zababdeh.

The news reports were relentless: people trapped in their homes without enough food, water, medicine or fuel. People shot on sight for venturing out. Journalists expelled to prevent the world from seeing what is happening. Ambulances attacked and medical help denied. People buried in a mass grave in a parking lot.  Soldiers going house-to-house to round up all Palestinian men, searching homes and tearing them up in the process. Executions. Our email was overflowing with messages detailing what was happening and desperately calling for intervention.

Around suppertime, after the mosque's loudspeaker announced the closure of schools, we discovered that Zababdeh’s telephone service had been cut; we could call within the village, but nowhere else. The only link to the outside was cellphones, and we wondered how much longer they would have service. Late that night, the Israeli army began re-entering Jenin, the closest city to our village. The sounds of scores of tanks and shooting resonated across Zababdeh.

This morning, after much prayer and heartache, we made the difficult decision to leave. We left because we feared for our lives and well-being in the face of the Israeli military offensive.

We might have felt called to stay in spite of (or even because of) this threat if we still had e-mail or even telephone access. Like the internationals staying in Ramallah, Bethlehem and other places, we might have stayed to offer support and to share on-the-ground news with the outside world. We might have. But instead we have left our dear friends behind, and we feel awful for doing so. We are terribly sad and worried about them. Since we left, we have spoken to as many of our friends in the West Bank as we could, including those we could reach in Zababdeh. As yet, the village is still quiet, but starting on April 5, there will be no electricity except for a few hours at night because there is very little petrol left. People are afraid of what is to come.

We are now staying with friends in largely-Palestinian Nazareth, Jesus' hometown now in the north of Israel. Although sad, we also feel relief and calm to be in a safe place.  However, we hope and pray to be able to return to Zababdeh soon. Our hearts and our prayers (as well as all our stuff) remain there.

In this Lenten time of suicide bombs and tanks, we see talking heads regurgitating political spin while human beings die; we see cities and towns sealed off from the world; we see archenemies Sharon and Arafat conducting a personal showdown, whatever the effects on their people might be. The world stands back and watches. This land is in need of hope—hope for peace and resurrection. We try to stay awake, that we may see the dawn of the morning star together.

Elizabeth and Marthame Sanders are Presbyterian missionaries living in the West Bank.