'And lo, I am with you always.' (Matthew 28:19)
European Ecumenical Encounter
Strasbourg, France, April 19-22, 2001
Sunday, April 22, 2001
By His Beatitude Anastasios
Archbishop of Tirana, Durres and All Albania
“And lo, I am with you always.” (Matthew 28:19)
1. I remember a young cleric some 37 years ago, who was on a prolonged retreat on the island of Patmos. Sitting in front of the open sea, he faced a challenging dilemma – to stay in his beautiful European country, within an environment he loved, and in which he was loved, or to obey the final command of the Lord, “Go ye,” and to depart for Africa. No guarantee was offered for this latter course and its future. Gazing from his simple, ascetic cell, the horizon of the open sea called within him, seeking a satisfactory response for this major decision in relation to the will of God.
The answer finally came in the form of a critical question: “Is God enough for you? If so, then go. If not, then stay where you are.” A follow-up question, however, reinforced the first. “But if God is not enough for you, in which God do you believe?” A peaceful decision followed, directing him on an innovative course into new missionary frontiers.
The basic guarantee and comfort in the bleak hours was always the assurance of the resurrected Christ, with the promise that follows the command to “Go and teach all nations.” “And lo, I am with you always, even to the close of the age.”
After 37 years, this young cleric has the honor to address this esteemed audience of respected co-elders, who have had parallel or analogous experiences, along with the dynamic young people who seriously face, according to their vocation, their devotion to the work of spreading the message and hope of the Gospel of the resurrection.
2. As we contemplate the words of the Lord, “And lo, I am with you,” we must necessarily understand this guarantee of Christ in its biblical frame. Before giving this guarantee, we see an assurance and a command. These three form a unique chain with three links. The assurance of the resurrected Lord says, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth” (Mt 28:18). And the command that immediately follows is, “Go ye and teach all nations.” If the phrase “and lo I am with you” remains isolated by itself, it loses its connectedness and dynamism. United with the other two links, (the conjunction “and” demands it), the phrase throws a unique light of responsibility on the most immediate and long-term issues in our ecclesiastical life. First, the consequence of Christ’s astonishing victory through His resurrection is not confined to one circle of people or nations, but instead relates to all. The “Resurrected-from-the-dead” receives the authority to deliver humankind from the multifarious demonic powers, and to transform every form of life, including relations and developments in the oikoumene. The stirring words of St. Paul try to express the honor, glory and power granted to the Son, resurrected from the dead, and emphasizes that all things, “ta panta,” remain under the dominion of Christ. (Eph 1:21, Col 1:16-21, Phil 2:9-11); “ta panta,” not only human, but the entire creation as well.
The eleven and their own successors, as they are sent out into the world, must know that behind them stands He, who disposes universal authority. “Every authority” was given to Christ, and from this comes the universal mission of the Church.
3. This Lord of the universe promises to be with us. Let us give special attention to the first word, the conjunction “and.” The assurance that the continuous presence of the Resurrected simultaneously offers a guarantee is not given in an abstract manner. Christ did not give the disciples this assurance so that they would be content in a closed community. This promise relates immediately to the mission of the disciples, with their own march outward, towards the world. It fills them with hope during the dangerous and uncertain hours, which they will face as foreigners in the new environments to which they go. It is organically related to the “Go ye.”
In previous times, many Europeans understood this final command of the Lord with geographic colors – to the depths of Africa or Asia, places where Christ was not yet preached. I must confess that I, myself, never considered seriously that the end of the world would be so close geographically to a country in Europe, i.e Albania. Yet, in that country they passionately crucified and buried Christ once again, prohibiting every sign of faith in an absolute manner for 23 years.
At the same time, however, we become aware of something that at times is even more dangerous than religious persecution – the indifference of various European countries in the west and east, who consciously or subconsciously run after the attractive idols of money, comfort, lust and power. For all these situations on our continent which negative religious attitudes shape, the command of the resurrected Lord demands a new dynamic and timeliness – “Go and teach all nations,” even the nations in Europe. Nations that harshly persecuted Christ for so many decades, as well as nations that pushed Him away through their own arrogance and indifference. This even includes nations who imagine that Christ is exclusively theirs – something like their household god, or an old national deity.
When you dare to take new initiatives, boldly departing from classic circles of security into new geographical, social, ideological and cultural environments, all for spreading the message of the cross and resurrection, then it is precisely at this point that we understand the words, “And lo, I will be with you.” Surely, if we remain faithful to the last commandment, we cannot be absorbed by the so-called “European problems.” On the other hand, which worldwide problem is not European.
As much as we are obliged to care for the needs that face the churches in Europe, we European Christians do not have the right to forget our duty toward people of other continents, especially those in development and exploration. Such peoples not only long for financial and technological development, but also yearn for the dignity, spiritual uplifting and disinterested love that only the Christian faith offers. If European Churches close within ourselves, caring only for our own faithful, and leave the initiatives and responsibilities of ongoing globalization to some secular, financial and political trusts, than we endanger ourselves by betraying the gospel in the end.
The basic biblical passage against the polarization of Europe and the world remains the words of the Lord to His own disciples, as recorded by St. Luke: “And you shall be my witness in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In modern translation, we can say in Strasbourg, and in all France, and Europe, and to the whole world.
4. This opening of our horizon guides us to see face to face the major issue of globalization in relation to the presence of the resurrected Christ. In the Paschal light, we can see everything with optimism and creative thought, including globalization, and we can proceed with bold interventions and decisive struggles for overcoming violence, injustice, and the absence of freedom, beginning within our immediate environment, within our family, our parish, our town, our country, and our Europe.
Our faith and devotion do not limit us within ourselves, our circle, our country, or our Europe, but call us to embrace everybody and everything, ‘ta panta,’ with hope and love. The cross and resurrection of Christ have opened the perspective and possibility for a different form of globalization, one based on lifting itself above personal or collective egocentrism, and cultivating love in local and worldwide dimensions.
Following the resurrection of Christ, we move within a worldwide perspective. When we have the temptation to turn around our small ego – personal, local, national, or European – the cross and the resurrection place us face to face with our responsibility to the oikoumene. We remember that the Church cannot be a closed society of the saved, exclusively enjoying the gifts of God by claiming comforts, privileges and world power. Instead, the Church is the Eucharistic community of the faithful, who knows and celebrates the experience of the resurrected Lord over death. With this truth, she gives life, and even transforms the life of all humankind, in freedom and love, because we ultimately know that every authority in heaven and on earth is given to Him, who is the hypostasis of love.
5. In order to face all these new challenges, a continual paschal departure from the security of our ecclesiastical circles is needed. Precisely in this difficult course we see that our support and source of peace is the assurance of the Lord – “and lo, I am with you.” The pronoun “I” is placed at the beginning, with a special emphasis, stressing that nobody else, not an angel or some other such being, but the resurrected Lord Himself, the King of the universe, will be our protector and ally. Not some idol about me, like those we so erroneously create, but I, as defined by my person, by my words starting with the Beatitudes and culminating in my sacrifice on the Cross.
This promise does not concern the eleven apostles alone, but includes all those who believe and take responsibility in sharing the gospel of resurrection to the world. The presence of Christ in the lives of the faithful is based on a relationship of sincere love and obedience to His will, something that places the believer within the eternal circle of the Holy Trinity’s love. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray to the Father, and He will give you another counselor, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of Truth” (Jn 14:15-17). Christ said this to His disciples before His passion. And after His resurrection, He commanded them, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you. And when He said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (Jn 20:21-22). The presence of the Holy Spirit relates to their own mission as His ambassadors in the world. The Resurrected Lord is present in our lives through the Holy Spirit. We know Him, here and now in the present, as our Redeemer and companion.
The phrase to baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit clarifies the truth that making disciples cannot be accomplished through human strength, but only through God’s power. All the dynamism of the Church is based in this certainty, and is expressed particularly in the Holy Eucharist. Here we remember not only the historical Jesus, like the memory of some hero or wise person who offers ideas and guidance, but we experience the mystical presence of the living Lord of the ages, to whom was given every authority. His presence is continuously apparent through the energy of the Holy Spirit, and its awareness is especially renewed during worship. This worship, however, should not become an emotional resting place of the saved, but instead should become a paschal witness to new frontiers, a continuous exodus into new areas that await the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit.
A Paschal hymn which we repeat after Holy Communion says, “O divine, O beloved, O sweetest voice! You promised truly that You would be with us to the end of the age. With this pledge as the anchor of our hope, we rejoice.”
The deepest Christian experience is precisely to be found in this consciousness of Christ’s presence, in this fellowship with Him – to love Him who is love. To live in freedom with Him who offered deliverance from every form of slavery. “And lo, I am with you all the days.” During the calm hours, when you gaze into the Infinite, into the macrocosm or microcosm. In the everyday efforts, when you accomplish your duty where you have been placed, so that your work may be transformed into a continuous liturgy after the holy Eucharist.
6. “And lo, I am with you.” This certainty fills us with hope, joy and power. Hope in front of the major crises and storms of our personal lives. Hope in front of the watertight eccelesiastical divisions that burdened us in the second millennium. Hope in front of the impasses of social injustices and multifarious violence that continue to torment humanity.
It fills us with more joy and delight, which help us peacefully overcome trials, contempt, and even our falls. Joy from the mystical presence of the Beloved, who is the fullness of love. With this delight of the resurrection, the Church victoriously proceeds into the world, yet when she loses her joy, she loses the world.
It fills us with the power of endurance in the frost of loneliness and the pressure of suffering and failure. It gives us the power of creativity in the ideological arena of culture, by promoting new forms of peaceful co-existence among people. Power for new initiatives inspired by the Spirit of God.
The decisive experience, for which I described at the start, continues to resound in the heart like an existential paraphrase of the above verse. “Is God enough for you? Go ahead. Even in the most difficult missions that He entrusts you. Even now, in your elderly years. If He is not enough for you, than remain where you are. If this is your answer, however, than you must question whether you truly believe in the resurrected Christ who has confirmed that “Lo, I am with you even to the end of the age?”
At the beginning of the new millennium, we Christians of Europe, the elders as well as the young people, are called to proceed with renewed optimism and a combative spirit for the reconciliation and creative co-existence in Europe and in the entire world. We must go with joyful certainty that we are ambassadors of Him who declared, “Every authority has been given to me” and continues to affirm, “Lo, I am with you.”
Proceed with the certainty that “all things” are under the power of the resurrected Lord, not only all humanity, but even the entire creation. Instead of a financial globalization which leads to the exploitation of many, let us struggle, each according to his or her possibilities, for an essential approach of people toward an ecumenical brotherhood which rests upon freedom, respect for one another, and love as they emanate from the cross and the life-giving tomb of the resurrected Christ. Let us march ahead with Christ, keeping the resurrection in our hearts, and the cry, “Christ is Risen” on our lips, always remembering the assurance that the resurrected Lord is “with us, even to the close of the age.” May this certainty fill us with power and hope for the present and the future – for us, our country, Europe and the entire world.