There are no words to describe the toll of loss — regarding lives extinguished and patrimony destroyed — that the news from the venerable Churches of the East brings into our homes with tragic frequency.
The horror of destruction and loss of life caused by evil acts and by human will bent on loss of life, destruction of what others hold sacred, and the desire to inflict misery and suffering are realities the mind struggles to grasp. But such is what happened in Cairo.
I would wish for no one reading this reflection to have the heart-wrenching experience of interacting with bishops, successors of the apostles for these most venerable churches of the East, turning to you in utter and abject distress, begging for help for their churches and the people they shepherd.
Even in the midst of this sorrow, Advent is for all of us the season of expectancy, the season of spiritual preparation. Three figures dominate it and each knew profound hardship, sacrifice…and persecution:
Abraham, our father in faith, who journeyed from Ur of the Chaldeans to that land God promised him. His faith is a model for each of us and his journey is an exemplar for the pilgrimage of our lives.
John the Baptist, the precursor of the Messiah, is the second. If Abraham and his disposition and journey form the first part of the triptych of Advent, it is John and his voice that form the second. His is the voice of one crying in the wilderness. He proclaims to “make straight the way of the Lord.” To “repent and believe.” As the well-known hymn declares: “On Jordan’s Bank, the Baptist’s cry announces that the Lord is nigh.” Glad tidings he brings of the King of kings…but they’re tidings we must receive and put into effect in our lives as we pass through the season of preparation and purification, so as to celebrate the birth of the Lord worthily and fittingly.
The third Advent personage is the Mother of Jesus. She also sets an example for each of us, who are disciples of the Lord, by her prayer…by her expectancy…by her preparation for the coming of the promised Messiah in the person of her Son: the Eternal Son of the Heavenly Father who, in the wonder of the incarnation, assumed a human nature in the womb of Mary of Nazareth. Through her, He came into our midst as Emmanuel…God-with-us.
We first glimpse God in human flesh lying in a manger on Christmas night and it is from His mother’s arms that we receive Him…just as the shepherds did on that Christmas night so long ago and so far away and just as the wise men received Him on the 12th night, the Lord’s Epiphany.
In the days ahead, our focus will shift from Nazareth to Bethlehem, as we follow the journey of Mary and Joseph who traveled to comply with the edict of the census that brought them to the city of David, their ancestor, where the prophet Micah had prophesied the Messiah would appear. Forty days after Christmas, we’ll turn our gaze again…to Jerusalem where the Baby Jesus will be presented in the temple.
But we must not lose sight of Him then. For the angel of the Lord will come to Joseph and tell Joseph to take the child and His mother and flee to Egypt, for Herod seeks to kill the child.
Men, with the basest of motivations, have done horrible things throughout human history as they still do today. Yet darkness cannot overcome the Light that has come into the world.
The Christ child was spirited away to a place offering Him refuge from a despot who sought His life…and He grew in wisdom, age, and grace before God and men — in Egypt. Still, in that awful moment, many children were murdered – and many faith communities honor them today, three days after Christmas, as “The Holy Innocents.”
Once, as Scripture foretold, there was weeping for the children slain, the Holy Innocents put to death. Today, it is the Egypt in which the Holy Family sought refuge that is filled with weeping and wailing for our brothers and sisters killed…not by the swords of Herod but by weapons of terror.
The place that was the refuge of the Holy Family once upon a time. The country by which the feet of Jesus blessed and sanctified the continent of Africa is today a land where His followers face persecution and martyrdom.
The Christmas cribs beside the Christmas trees are serene in the image they present, of a silent night…a holy night. The serenity can belie what many of our contemporary brothers and sisters are facing today. Please do not forget them. They are in need of your love. They are in need of your prayers. They are in need of their brothers and sisters.
It’s easy for us to say…and to sincerely think… “If I’d been in Bethlehem, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph would not have wanted for a place — I would have given them everything.” It’s easy to think, “If Herod’s soldiers had come, we would’ve defended the Holy Family with our lives.” It’s easy to think, “Had we found the Holy Family arriving from afar after journeying to flee the murderous Herod, we would’ve opened our hearts and homes to them, strangers in a strange and distant land.”
And yet…the Lord Jesus said, “What you do for these, even the least of my brethren, you did it to Me.”
May this season of Advent and Christmas reawaken the awareness of where Jesus said we would find Him and in whom we could serve Him. As we look into the eyes of the persecuted Church…the persecuted Christians…may we be conscious that we are looking into the eyes of Christ whom we are given the chance to embrace, to love, and to serve in a way we could not two thousand years ago because we were not there. We were not there because, in His Providence, the Lord placed us in 2016, to serve Him in this moment in human history. Today, we find Him not lying in a manger but in those of today who desperately need us. In them, we can still touch Him.
May God bless you. And may He fill you with the joy and peace of this time of grace.