Sunday, April 19, 2015

Fr Georges Massouh: Christ the Stranger

Arabic original here.

Christ the Stranger

The text of the Gospel contents itself with a brief indication that Joseph of Aramathea asked Pilate for Jesus' body in order to bury it after His death on the cross and his request was granted... However, the author of the hymn "Give me this stranger" which is chanted on Good Friday during the service of Christ's burial places on the lips of Joseph words that give the best expression of the person of Jesus Christ and His teachings. Joseph of Aramathea says, according to the hymn, "Give me this stranger who from His youth has wandered like a stranger. Give me this stranger at whom I wonder, beholding him as a guest of death. Give me this stranger, who knows how to take in the poor and strangers... who insofar as He is a stranger has nowhere to lay His head."

There is no doubt that in composing the hymn, its author relied on the tradition of the Gospel, which places on the lips of Jesus the following words: "I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me" (Matthew 25:35-36). Here we can also use the opening of the Sermon on the Mount in which Christ blesses the poor in spirit, the meek, the sorrowing, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those persecuted for righteousness' sake (cf. Matthew 5:1-12) to affirm that in the two texts together, Christ spoke of the importance of gratuitous service, love, and mercy among humankind in order to attain salvation.

Christ equated Himself with the vulnerable among all the nations, and clearly stated that those who work mercy toward them did as though they worked mercy toward the Lord Himself. The text at hand does not point to the requirement of faith as a gateway to salvation, while there are other texts that affirm the requirement of faith as a gateway to eternal life. Therefore, the text does not point to identity based on faith, religion or sect for those who work mercy "when the Son of Man sits upon the throne of His glory and gathers unto Himself all the nations"... What is meant by "the nations" is the Jews and all the other religions that exist in the world. "Nation" at that time meant religious community and the Jews rejected any times between themselves and the nations, so Jesus came and lifted the barriers between the nations and called upon all to accept salvation... He also intended to say to the Jews, the people of His nation, that there are good people in other nations upon whom God will look with compassion.

In this very context, the Gospel shows us that the stranger may be closer to fulfilling the commandment of mercy and love than any of those who see themselves as close to God. In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), we have we have the best example of what we are saying, when when the Lord confirmed that closeness between one person and another does not come from family, national or sectarian affiliation or from any other prejudice, but rather from emergency conditions, when we encounter those who are in need of our love and mercy. This is precisely what the Samaritan did for the one who fell into the hands of the thieves. The Samaritan did not continue along his way. He stopped and put off all his plans when he saw the Jew-- who considered him to be an enemy and a heretic--  close to death.

The Christian tradition considered the Good Samaritan to not only be Christ Himself, but Christ is the perfect neighbor who the Father sent to heal our wounds and to save us from the grip of the evil one and the darkness of death. By analogy, we can see Christ Himself in everyone who feeds the hungry, gives drink to the thirsty, clothes the naked, gives shelter to the stranger, and visits those who are sick and in prison. On the basis of the words of the Apostle Paul, "I urge you to imitate me as I imitate Christ", Origen of Alexandria (d. 235) calls us to imitate the Samaritan who is the image of Christ. He says, "We can imitate Christ and have mercy on those who have fallen into the hands of thieves, and go to them and treat their wounds, pour on them oil and wine, put them on our donkey and carry their burden."

Christ is the stranger and at the same time He is the one who works mercy towards the stranger. When we work mercy toward the vulnerable, we do it toward Christ Himself. At the same time, we can say that everyone who works mercy imitates Christ Himself and comes to be in the image and likeness of Christ. In this regard, Saint Epiphanius of Cyprus (d. 403) says in his exegesis of this statement, "Does our Lord thirst and hunger? Is He naked, He who does not change in His nature, who created everything in heaven and on earth, who nourishes the angels in heaven and every nation and race on earth? It is not reasonable to think this. The Lord does not hunger in His nature, but rather in His saints. He does not thirst in His nature, but in the poor."

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