The symbols of Christmas speak a language which we all understand. Pope Francis reminds us, “The Christmas tree and Nativity scene are symbols of God’s love and hope, reminding us to contemplate the beauty of creation and welcome the marginalized. The cribs set up in churches, in homes and in so many public places are also an invitation to make room in our life and in society for God, hidden in the faces of many persons who are in conditions of hardship, of poverty and of tribulation.”
As we have listened to the readings of Advent and look forward to the readings of Christmas, we can see that they speak of a new era, one of peace and tranquility — a new dawn breaking upon the world. This message is meant to fill the world with hope, with deep longings fulfilled, thereby diminishing the anxiety and fear experienced by many people in this country and throughout the world.
Emmanuel, God Is with Us, brings new promise. The Messiah has come to deliver people from their suffering and affliction. The promise has been realized. This is the gift of Christmas. This is what we celebrate these days.
But perhaps not for everyone. The threat of deportation among the undocumented in this country, and even worse the threat of death for being Christian in the Middle East, brings severe angst among many populations. The mystery of Christmas for them may seem to be a hidden reality.
As I sit to write this column, the sad news has come across the Internet of a bombing at a chapel adjacent to Egypt’s main Coptic Christian cathedral killing 25 people and wounding another 49, mostly women and children, during a Sunday Mass. One cannot imagine the pain and suffering felt by Egyptians in the aftermath of such barbarism. But this is not an isolated incident. My heart goes out to the people of Cairo and all across Egypt. We must not forget the people of Iraq and Syria as well, for so many of them have similar experiences.
The fact is that the persecution of religious believers has become an increasingly tragic situation all across the world. People of all religious denominations, including Muslims and Jews, are facing the wrath of persecution. But Evangelical Protestants and Catholics have especially become targets of terrorism initiated by evil authorities who are often motivated by anti-Western, anti-democratic ideologies and who feel threatened by Christian faith and worship.
Pope Francis, in a homily in June 2014, said that “there are more martyrs in the Church today than in the first centuries.” After an additional two years, the evidence bears this out even more. Little has been done by the United States government in terms of speaking out against these terrors of religious persecution. Perhaps as a Christian nation we have failed to do all within our power to alleviate the suffering of those persecuted. This should concern all of us.
We might think, “what can I do?” We can be in solidarity with those who have been displaced from their homelands because of persecution through prayer and support. As I wrote in my Pastoral Letter, “To be in solidarity with others is to see them as God sees them, to love them as God loves them, and to sacrifice for them as Christ has sacrificed for them. United together, we are the Body of Christ. Every time we neglect others in the Body, the whole Body suffers (cf. 1 Cor 12:26). When we live in solidarity and charity, the Body of Christ is built up, there is communion, and the Kingdom of God is made manifest.”
We are often are afraid of people who are different from us. Fear hardens our hearts and creates binders on our eyes. But when looking at this situation with our eyes open, not living in fear but in solidarity and love, we will see their plight as an opportunity to be messengers of Christmas peace and hope. Then blindness and indifference will be transformed into solidarity and love.
In gathering with family and friends to celebrate this great feast of Emmanuel, God Is With Us, don’t forget to include the suffering and persecuted of the world in your prayers, in your conversations and in your generosity. These are simple ways in which we can be in solidarity with these brothers and sisters. May your Christmas be filled with very grace and blessing!