In one of the most beloved passages from the Gospel of Luke, the birth of Our Lord is announced at Bethlehem by an angel of the Lord, and a multitude of the heavenly host proclaim, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
As 2016 comes to an end, the passage from Luke seems never more urgent or relevant to our needs as a nation and a world. This is especially true for our suffering sisters and brothers in the Holy Land and across the Middle East, the place where Our Lord was born.
The end of the year brings some hope for the Christians there — but also great fear.
The Islamic State (ISIS) is being driven from the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and the nearby Nineveh Plain, home to Christians for some two millennia. Christians in northern Iraq hope to have the opportunity soon to return to their towns and cities, but many dread they will find only ruins and little safety. ISIS may be gone militarily, but its evil spirit remains.
The Syrian Catholic archbishop of Mosul, Yohanna Petros Mouche, for example, recently told the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need that 75% of the homes in the now-freed Christian villages on the Nineveh Plain had been torched by local Muslims.
“Why did these people, with whom we were associated, do this? We ask ourselves whether this was their way of telling us that they will burn us to death if we return,” the archbishop said, adding: “We are afraid that we will have to continue to live with these people. We impatiently awaited liberation, and many wanted to return immediately, but there first need to be guarantees for our safety.”
In Syria, the news continues to be heartbreaking, most so in the city of Aleppo, where tens of thousands have died in the fighting between Syrian government forces and rebels, with another 250,000 trapped in the city and at risk from the savage combat, bombings, airstrikes and massacres, even as cease-fires are arranged and then collapse.
Beyond Syria and Iraq, there are the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have been displaced and brave death and injury to reach the shores of Europe. This year brought the somber milestone of more than 3,000 refugee deaths in the waters of the Mediterranean alone.
In her page-one story in this issue of the Register, Joan Frawley Desmond follows the plight of some Christian refugees who have been displaced and are celebrating Christmas under grim circumstances.
In the face of this misery, it is easy to despair of finding lasting answers and hope.
And yet, in the midst of the anxiety, Archbishop Mouche speaks of his “great joy” that, soon, Christians will return to the Nineveh Plain. In some towns in Iraq, bells have been rung in churches for the first time in two years, and Christians can see the possibility of returning to their lives and, God willing, openly living their faith.
There is much to be done, of course. There is the vexed question of building a stable environment for Christians and religious minorities on the Nineveh Plain and in Mosul. The incoming Trump administration can redouble efforts to defeat ISIS, find a permanent and peaceful settlement to Iraq’s religious strife and find a way forward to end the civil war in Syria.
Political and diplomatic solutions can gain us much, but as Christians, we are also possessed of a deeper vision of reality.
“Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
If we truly give glory to God, as did the angels, then we must proclaim him everywhere — and in doing so, proclaim peace on earth among men, for the two are intimately connected. To fail to glorify God is to fail to bring authentic peace.
Pope Benedict XVI understood this well when he taught at the last midnight Mass of his pontificate in 2012, “Where God is not glorified, where he is forgotten or even denied, there is no peace either. … If God’s light is extinguished, man’s divine dignity is also extinguished. Then the human creature would cease to be God’s image, to which we must pay honor in every person, in the weak, in the stranger, in the poor.”
We may hope for the practical resolutions to the problems of our age, but anything truly lasting demands that we are aware that what Christ revealed to all of us supersedes any temporal power. All countries declare that they seek peace, but the model for us is God’s humility and love. He came into the world as an infant, that we might love him and that the wisest might truly grasp what peace on earth actually means.
“Christ is our peace,” Pope Benedict taught on that Christmas night, “and he proclaimed peace to those far away and to those near at hand (Ephesians 2:14, 17). How could we now do other than pray to him: Yes, Lord, proclaim peace today to us too, whether we are far away or near at hand. Grant also to us today that swords may be turned into ploughshares (Isaiah 2:4), that instead of weapons for warfare, practical aid may be given to the suffering. Enlighten those who think they have to practice violence in your name, so that they may see the senselessness of violence and learn to recognize your true face. Help us to become people ‘with whom you are pleased’ — people according to your image and thus people of peace.”
As we embark on a new year, we should take this opportunity to pray for the suffering of the Church across the world, keep close in our hearts the Christians — and all who suffer — in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, and commit ourselves anew to bring love to a love-starved world. In so doing, we can help to bring true peace among men. The editors and staff of the National Catholic Register wish everyone a blessed Christmas!