|Mosaic, Shrine of Our Lady Awaiting, Maghdouche, Lebanon|
courtesy of (c) Aid to the Church in Need
They do not have a Mass quite like this, but it is the same Eucharist of the Lord, with music and words, colour and ceremony going back on the same spot to the earliest days of the Christian religion - that is, the religion of those who knew Jesus Christ personally and, in His footsteps on the land of the East, planted their own, as their families and descendants, father and mother to son and daughter, have been doing for twenty centuries.
You have heard in the news that these ancient communities of Eastern Christians - Catholic and Orthodox; Arab, Armenian, Assyrian; with all the rich variety that makes the Church both all-encompassing and One – are under the direst threat they have ever faced. After nearly 1500 years of living side by side with Muslims, despite the persecution of successive empires, with bonds of charity and peace as children of the same land and peoples, now a ruthless band of killers has been going from village to village, town to town, monastery to monastery, destroying the Churches, forcing the faithful from their homes, kidnapping them along with their priests and monks and nuns, sometimes executing them, burning the ancient books that tell our Christian faith in the words of our forebears from the dawning days of the Church itself, tearing down the images of the Cross on which our Lord suffered for the sake of our redemption, and desecrating the altars and the images of Our Lord and the Mother of God. In Syria alone, the north of our Holy Land, forty-five churches and monasteries have been desecrated since the present surge of ISIS began; and a hundred more churches, orphanages, residential care homes, schools, and social or medical centres, provided by the Church for the benefit of all alike, have been damaged or ruined. There are similar stories from Iraq. But the worst of it all is that every day hundreds more Christians leave the Middle East. Ancient Churches in Palestine too, within a few miles of Bethlehem, face desertion as Christians are pressured out by Israel and Palestinian Muslims alike. Christ was born and cradled in Bethlehem, but Syria and the Middle East cradled Christianity, so it is emergency that affects us, as the whole region is stripped of its Christians, as a whole way of life and culture has part of its history and identity shorn off, so that all that remains is the gap where the memory used to be. A few of our fellow Christians from the Middle East will come to northern Europe, especially Sweden where they have been welcomed; more will go to North America; still more will find new homes in South America and Australia. Far away in the future their children will forget their Arab life and culture, as they become like us who live in the West. In time the language of Christ will be spoken no more. In time, you have to wonder, will they forget the Christ their families have followed for twenty centuries, since He first stepped beside the shore of Galilee and went up to their mountains to speak of God’s eternal life, or since Paul went to Damascus and was converted? Today the Archbishop of Canterbury describes the murderers as modern Herods, seeking out all the children of God in order to attack Christ, forcing new Holy Families to flee.
St Paul told us that the Cross of Christ would be a scandal (I Corinthians 1.23) to those who cannot bear to look on it, and tear it down. Our Lord himself told us, “Blessed are you when people persecute you and speak all kinds of evil against you on account of Me. Rejoice and be glad for great is your reward in heaven, because they treated the same way the Prophets before you.” (Matthew 5.11) He goes on to say – “You are the salt of the earth”, “you are the light of the world,” whose trials are seasoning to bring out the flavour of the world and to preserve it for the future; whose sufferings are the illumination that shines the way to God the Father.
So the message from the leader of Syria’s Catholic Christians, head of a Church founded by St Peter years before he reached Rome, Patriarch Gregorios III of Antioch, that he has written to all his people is one of joy. It is a message he shares with the whole Church, because in the midst of the crisis, when all around is sadness and destitution, not only for the Christians but many others too, the distinguishing marks of Christians are love and joy for the very fact the God has sent His Son into the world. So there is no room for despair, no bare cupboard where once we kept our hopes in storage.
You might say, he is being brave. As Patriarch to his people, he is trying to rally people round, and encourage them to hold fast and hang on for a brighter day. You might say he is shoring up their inner faith while outside things fall to pieces. This is perhaps half the story .
But the whole truth is this. He is reminding us all that, whatever the appearances around us – and in our country it is the rough rejection of Christ and Christianity in public life and personal living – whatever it is that people do with guns and swords, with the abuse of power and money, it does not change the fact that 2,015 years ago, God caused Himself to be born a human being so that He could be God with us, not away in the distance. It does not change the fact that He taught us, when we think of heaven, not to imagine a land far off in the future, but here and now, “on earth as it is in heaven”, as we pray every day. It does not change the fact that He too was murdered on a Cross because of human wickedness and resentment of God’s goodness and beauty, yet died exhausting evil of everything it could through against Him. It does not change the fact that, thirty-three year after His birth, on the Third Day he rose again from the dead and destroyed its power and victory over us, not its victim but over it the Victor. Our pride and joy in Christ is therefore not just that He is the person who inspires us, or the One Who leads us in our hearts and imagination. It is not just that Christianity is our personal spirituality, our private belief; or that Jesus is our personal Lord, the God for me. He is Lord of all. If He is not Lord of all, if He is not the King whose power authority is above all other powers and people, if He is not the One that turned inside out the very way that life and the universe operate when He rose from the dead, then He is not Lord at all, and no Lord for me. Yet this is the Lord of all that is, this small infant we worship today. He fills the universe, this child in the farm animals’ manger. He is not only the delight of Christians today, but the enduring hope of all the world.
One of the beautiful icons you often see in an Eastern Christian church, painted up in the apse over the altar, shows the Mother of God with her hands extended, and seated on her womb is the young Lord Christ, also holding his hands out in blessing, pointing the way onwards with authority. The picture is called “The Mother of God, she who is wider than the heavens”. She is the Mother who in her own body contains the uncontainable. The sheer vastness of what we are celebrating today is this: that “the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay”, is the very expression of the Word of God Who creates and rules the universe. He became flesh not only to be with us, but to die on the Cross in our flesh, to take away all the power of sin, and evil’s power over us, and then to vanquish death, using our flesh as His means, by rising from the dead. This is how we live the life on earth that is lived in heaven. Nothing can destroy it, nothing can take it away; for it is the life of the One Whom the universe cannot contained. It means that - to the eye of the Christian - Jesus Christ is the light who has come into the world, that nothing in the world can outshine. No one can put His light into a box, hide it, or extinguish it. It outshines all other lights. Not just me, all of us, whoever we are, whether we believe or not, have neither sufficient light, nor darkness, to cover it. This is the light that shines more brightly than Britain, than Syria, than the ISIS murderers, than everything the world can do to tear down the Cross and its power of liberation and rejoicing.
A number of you have brought today your little images of the Christchild for a blessing, so that you can take them home and put them in your cribs with joy and happiness that the presence of Christ shines like a light in your homes, families and loved ones near and far this Christmas. You will all be hoping that it shines through you, for we are all sinners and imperfect vessels of the light we are carrying. But try not to think of it as a little ornament, a small token of faith and love. When you look on the Christchild in the Crib here in this Church or at home, remember that here portrayed is the Lord Who fills the universe, in the embrace of her who has become wider than the heavens to contain the uncontainable. Try and imagine that you, too, in your own hands and your own heart and your own body, are containers for the uncontainable as you bring Him close to the world. Try and imagine that for a moment you, too, are wider than the heavens as you hold the hope of the whole world – not just for you personally – the very life of God Who has come into the world to bring peace, and liberty from evil, and joy.
Remember that this is the faith of the Christians of the Middle East who stand to lose everything, yet still have confidence in Christ, the Word made flesh, the Word of God from God, the Light from Light that can never be outshone, the Lord whose Kingdom prevails, on earth as it is in heaven.