When Christmas peace is a hope alone ...

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As we Christians in the West work our way this week through the Christmas leftovers and the remaining days of the season, perhaps we can spare a moment and a prayer for Christians in other parts of the world, the Christians of Iraq and 50 Christian families in Bethlehem about to lose their homes to an Israeli “security” expansion.

Political and security conditions in Iraq, already in sorry shape, have plummeted dramatically since the departure of the last of U.S. combat forces on Dec. 18. Even the biggest of Iraq pessimists must be surprised at how quickly the always shaky political jury-rigging that is contemporary Iraq is unraveling. The Obama administration has been under attack by Republicans because of the U.S. withdrawal, which resulted after negotiations for extending the presence of a U.S. force broke down, but one can only imagine the storm of criticism he would have endured had he allowed U.S. troops to remain in Iraq stripped of their immunity and subject to Iraqi prosecution, the sticking point that U.S. and Iraqis could not get past.

There will be many victims if a renewed civil conflict begins in earnest in Iraq, but the nation’s ancient Christian community appears to already reside on the casualty list. Most have already fled; many among those who remain live in fear for their livelihoods and their lives.

After an abrupt resurgence of violence and with tensions rising between Sunni and Shi’ite communities in Iraq, the nation’s Christian leaders essentially canceled Christmas this year. Christians were already keeping a low profile; churches did not allow exterior Christmas decorations for instance. But after new bomb attacks in Baghdad and attacks on Christian businesses and individuals in communities once considered reasonably secure in northern Iraq, church leaders canceled midnight Mass and other traditional Christmas observances in the interest of safety.

“Kirkuk’s Christians will not hold Christmas celebrations but will mark this occasion in church masses and pray for security and stability in Iraq,” Archbishop Sako told Alsumarianews.

“Instable security in Iraq in general and Kirkuk in particular, the continuous targeting of Christians in Mosul, incidents of Badinan of Kurdistan in addition to other situations in Iraq led Christians to cancel Christmas celebrations,” he told a local source.

Meanwhile Christians in the Holy Land are dealing with a continuing crisis of their own as they fall under increasing pressure from Israeli expansion. In the little town of Bethlehem, this week for instance, 50 Christian families in Beit Jala on the West Bank face losing their land and homes as Israel completes the separation wall across the district of Bethlehem. Their plight was noted by U.K. Archbishop Vicent Nichols during his Homily for Midnight Mass  at Westminster Cathedral, excerpted below:

Tonight, as we ponder this sacred birth, we are also to reflect on the duty that goes with this gift, this privilege of faith. Our faith in God, our awareness of God’s unfailing love, brings with it responsibility and obligation. There is, with faith, an accompanying question: ‘What am I to do?’

Three things.

We are to see clearly the reality of the world around us. As we look at the real circumstances of Christ’s birth so too we look with fresh eyes on the anxieties and insecurity which touch many peoples’ lives. We are to be freshly attentive to the needs of those who, like Jesus himself, are displaced and in discomfort. We are to see more clearly all those things which disfigure our world, the presence of the sins of greed and arrogance, of self-centred ambition and manipulation of others, of the brutal lack of respect for human life in all its vulnerability. While recognising how complex moral dilemmas can become, we are to name these things for what they are. We too live ‘in a land of deep shadow.’

That shadow falls particularly heavily on the town of Bethlehem tonight. At this moment the people of the parish of Beit Jala prepare for their legal battle to protect their land and homes from further expropriation by Israel. Over 50 families face losing their land and their homes as action is taken to complete the separation/security wall across the territory of the district of Bethlehem. We pray for them tonight.

Then, secondly, we are to look with fresh wonder at those closest to us, seeing again their goodness and their loyalty, their readiness to forgive and their desire to care for us.  In offering our ‘yes’ to the Lord, we are to respond together with kindness and forgiveness, with generosity and compassion to those in need. Together we become, day by day, an instrument of Christ’s continuing mission in our world, even to imitating his self-sacrificing love for others. In the words of St Paul we are to be a people with ‘no ambition except to do good.’

St Paul also points to the third aspect of our task. He tells us that hope is the key. We live in a world in which the prospects for the future, in the terms the world can offer, are distinctly shaky. Yet we find an unshakable hope in our Saviour. As we celebrate his birth we remember that he is to come again. And it is this coming that gives us our enduring hope.  St Paul tells us that we can only fulfil the duties of faith if we are a people who ‘are waiting in hope for the blessings which will come with the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Christ Jesus.’

The birth of Christ shows us that the narrative of life offered by the world, an account of human life which does not see beyond the confines of the created world, is only half the story. This birth shines a light into our world which dissolves those boundaries and opens up new and startling horizons, going beyond the vision of earthly eyes and confirming as true the hope that comes with faith: hope in eternal life and in a final destiny of fulfilment for all things, hope in one who has overcome every limitation, even death itself.

Tonight let us renew that gift of faith. Let us celebrate its joy, its comfort and its challenge. Let us be ready to play our part in word and deed. As we celebrate the loving response of Mary to God’s invitation, let us ask her to encourage us always to  offer our ‘yes’ and, staying close to her Son, confidently put our faith into practice each day.

Then indeed this will be a happy and a blessed Christmas. And I can wish you no more than that.