By Matthew Hassan Kukah, Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese†
Easter is here again. But for us in Nigeria, where trials and tribulations have become part of our daily national menu, it is hard to find any reason to be hopeful. Frustration, self doubt, dissatisfaction, discontentment, depression and anomie, all fill the air. For different and distinct reasons, both the rich and the poor now seem to sleep on the same bed of unease, discomfort and insomnia. Vanity of vanities, says the holy book, all vanity. While the poor are dying of hunger, suicide, hitherto uncommon, is actually on the rise particularly among the elite. Suicide bombers, kidnapping and armed robbery have become part of our national life and international news also overflows with suffering, violence and fear. We are tempted to ask, when will it all end and where will it all lead us?
Hope in times of desolation
In the gospels, Jesus speaks of times when, you will be betrayed by parents and brothers, by your relatives and friends (Lk.22: 16). He also speaks of persecutions, calamities, earthquakes and wars. Rather than be frightened, Jesus enjoins all His followers to – stand erect, lift up your heads because your vindication is near at hand (Lk 22: 28). We who believe ought not to be afraid.
In similar circumstances of instability and hopelessness, the apostles locked themselves in a room for fear of the Jews (Jn. 20:19). However, the gift of the Holy Spirit sprang their traps of hope and their timidity was transformed into courage. That same spirit is what has been given to us, a spirit of Easter. A spirit of which St Paul says, is not a spirit of fear but a spirit of power, love and good judgment (2 Tim.1: 7).
The irony of the mission of Jesus
We human beings are all encouraged by God and by society to celebrate life. However, unfortunately, our literal interpretation of this in Nigeria is taken to the most ridiculous and criminal heights. Whereas wealth ought to be the result of hard work, a blessing from God, in our Nigerian society today, we too often hear supposed religious teachers proclaim that wealth and a good life come from miracles and wonders, from sowing a seed and even reaping where we did not really sow. They tell us that opulence is a blessing from God and poverty is not our portion. From the opulent and individualist manner in which we see such material wealth celebrated in our country, one can only lament that we have lost that African sense of feeling for the other and of community and solidarity.
Let us pause and ask if this has any relationship with the mission and person of Jesus? I invite those who claim that their wealth is evidence of God’s blessings to pause and ask how it happened that Jesus was born in a manger. I invite those who stage humungous celebrations of thanksgiving for the birth of a child to pause to ask how it is that for the naming ceremony of the Son of God, His parents, who could not afford the prescribed lamb, merely came with two pigeons (Lk. 2: 24). I invite those Christians who spend hundreds of millions to bury their deceased to ponder on why the Lord of heaven and earth was buried in a borrowed tomb (Lk. 22: 52-53).
While we humans pray for and believe that material wealth and long life are a blessing, the life and death of Jesus truly has much to teach us. He lived and died not for material wealth, but for love, that all people will know the love of God which is without end and which is the essential essence of all human existence. Jesus was faithful to His mission right up to the end because he sought only to fulfil the will of His Father in heaven. He taught us that God is love and we are to love God with all our heart, soul and mind, and to love our neighbour as ourself, to love unconditionally, unselfishly, fearlessly, without measure, until the end (Jn. 6:38).
Why the resurrection is everything for Christians
I have often referred to the Newsweek Magazine interview years ago in which the late Mohammed Ali was asked what great and memorable moment of history he would wish to relive if God gave him that chance. His reply was, “The time when Jesus rose from the dead. I would have loved to see how that happened.” From the Gospel accounts of this event we can appreciate the realities of that moment as an epiphany. Guards had been placed at the tomb because Pilate and the Jewish authorities were afraid that the body of Jesus might be stolen by his apostles who might then claim that he has risen (Mt 27:54). The guards did not know when it happened and when they saw the angels at the tomb, they were like dead men (Mt. 28:4). In shock, the Jewish authorities decided to even bribe the guards against all military procedures and agreed to tell Pilate that the body had been stolen! (Mt. 28: 12ff).
A very fundamental element in our following Jesus and our belief that he is indeed the Son of God, God made flesh, is the fact of his resurrection from the dead. Indeed the birth, life, teachings, parables, miracles and example of Jesus are all of utmost importance in helping us know, love and follow Jesus. As he said at the Last Supper: “I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you” (Jn.13:15); and in the parable of the Good Samaritan, He tells us, “Go and do likewise” (Lk. 10:37). Following Christ, to be a Christian, is to live by his example and his teachings. However, we cannot but agree with St Paul who said, “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is worthless and so is your faith. In that case, we are also exposed as false witnesses about God (1 Cor. 15: 14ff). So, it is on the resurrection of Jesus that our entire architecture of faith is woven.
What the resurrection of Jesus has taught us
The Acts of the Apostles is really one of the very fascinating books of the Bible. It is an account of the transition of the apostles from poor, semi illiterates, to a spirit filled, divinely inspired group of people.
Jesus has left them and so they have no one to turn to. They had learnt to depend on him, even for miracles in times of danger such as when they nearly drowned at sea (Mt. 8: 26), when he cured Simon Peter’s mother-in-law (Mk 1: 30-32), or when he provided emergency feeding to them (Jn. 6). It is remarkable that it is in his absence that the frightened apostles become different human beings, no longer afraid, prepared to welcome torture, knowing God can work miracles even through them.
Jesus had already told them, “Do not be troubled, trust in God and trust in me (Jn. 14:1).” He had told them not to even carry any money because they would not need it (Lk. 10:4). He had told them that if they believed, they would do even greater things than what He had done (Jn. 14:12). The greatest gift, the guarantor of all the promises He had made to them was the gift of the Holy Spirit, the one who would confirm everything that He had said, “I will send you the spirit of truth. When he has come from the father, he will be my witness, and you too will be my witnesses (Jn. 15:26). The apostles received the Holy Spirit and by their lives, became witnesses to all that Jesus had been, done and taught.
We see that they themselves even begin to heal. The first miracle is an illustration, a revelation of what Jesus meant when He told them money was not important. Silver and gold, Peter told the cripple at the gate of the temple, I have none, but what I have, I give to you. In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, get up and walk (Acts 3: 5). The frightened community, now energised by the power of the Holy Spirit, turned into a completely different set of people. We are told that they were of one mind and heart and no one claimed anything as their own (Acts 4:32). Their lives are a carbon copy of the life of Jesus. In Antioch, due to this quality, this Christ-like behaviour and character, the pagans decided to call them, Christians (Acts 11:26). This is the very difficult but rewarding road that we are called upon to travel as Christians.
The challenge for Christians today
Despite the fact that Christians have borne a disproportionate burden of suffering in Nigeria, we believers must put all this in its proper context. Today, Christians are the most persecuted people in the world, according to a study undertaken by Civitas, UK. But, as Christians, we are neither frightened nor threatened. In the words of St Paul, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body (2 Cor. 4:8).
We have no reason to be afraid nor should we feel despondent. These trials can only strengthen us. With St Paul again, we say aloud, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the same comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ overflow to us, so also through Christ our own comfort overflows (2 Cor. 1:4).
Happy Easter, Nigeria
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! On an economic scale we see that even the dollar has risen again! So, Nigeria shall rise again. As the vaults of deceit are thrown open, the secrets behind our poverty, squalor, deprivation, misery and destitution are about to be laid bare. The millions of dollars stolen by criminals in power which are today being exposed are merely a metaphor for the grand larceny that has masqueraded as governance in Nigeria.
Let us not forget that globally as well as in Nigeria, among these criminals are people of all faiths, including Christians. Hence, although Christians are the most persecuted people in the world today, let us not assume the attitude of victims but let us instead assume with conviction our faith and live with sincerity the mandate to be witnesses to all that Christ taught, did and was. Only thus, guided and strengthened by the Holy Spirit and with belief in the gentle but sure transforming power of love, can we bring about the change we hope for.
May the fresh breeze of the Holy Spirit expose all the criminals and murderers among us. They are the ones who have denied us our God-given human dignity and the good life promised us by God who has given us such abundant resources in Nigeria. As the writer of the book of Hebrews reminds us, “The word of God is alive and active, sharper than any double-edged sword. It pierces…joints and marrow and judges the intentions and thoughts of the heart…everything is uncovered and lay bare (Heb. 4: 12ff). May we remain true to our faith and keep burning in our hearts the fire of faith, hope and love. Thus we can realize the vision of Jesus who lived among us, died and rose that we may experience the fullness of life.
Fellow Christians, please heed the words of the timeless song, The Old Rugged Cross, and cling to yours because, as the song says, you will exchange it someday for a crown. For now, Happy Easter, my fellow Nigerians! May God bless our dear country and heal our president. May God’s eternal peace and justice reign in our dear and suffering world.