16 December 2014

Archbishop of Baghdad calls for fasting and prayer before Christmas, and no worldly celebrations

As we approach the celebration of the Lord's Birth with ever increasing anticipation in these days as the Church's prayers begin to shift from awaiting the Lord's advent on the Last Day to awaiting his advent at Bethlehem, the joyful memories of Christmases past and the hopeful expectation of the glories of this coming Christmas no doubt fill our hearts and minds.

Many homes and yards, businesses and streets, and, yes, even churches, already display the festivity of Christmas with garlands of evergreen, lights of different colors and hues, snowmen, statues, and Nativity sets. The ringing of bells and the singing of carols fill our ears and the taste of cookies, cakes, and pies fill our mouths.

On the one hand, this is as it should be. How can we not rejoice with our salvation so close at hand? Yet, on the other hand, there are many of our brothers and sisters who cannot share in our joy in this same way, and this is not because of poverty, but because of a continuing and increasing persecution.

A Nativity display set up in a refugee camp in Erbil, Iraq
His Beatitude Louis Raphael I Sako, Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans (whose cathedral is in Baghdad, Iraq and whose faithful have been driven from the Nineveh Plain by the Islamic State), has called for a period of prayer and fasting leading up to the night of Christmas. As Asia News reports:
For this reason, he urges them to fast from Monday 22 December until night on 24 December, not touching food or drink until noon, as "in the days of Ba'utha". The Fast of Ba'utha commemorates what the prophet Jonah brought to the people of Nineveh for their conversion.
The reason for his appeal for a period of fasting is simple and straightforward: "We fast for the liberation of Mosul and the villages of the Nineveh plains, so that peace and security will return to these areas, and everyone will be able to return to his or her home, job and school."

What is more, His Beatitude has called upon all Christians "not to organize any kind of worldly celebration at Christmas or New Year, given such bitter circumstances, as a sign of solidarity with their displaced brothers and sisters who are going through indescribable suffering."

Even so, the Patriarch is not without hope: "We are certain that the birth of Christ, who shared our personal history and that of humanity, will listen to our prayers and will accept our fasting and realize our hope and desire to return to our homes and live our lives as normal as before." 

I cannot pretend to know what the Christians of Iraq and Syria are experiencing now that they have been driven from their homes. Nor can I can pretend to know what are other persecuted Christians are also experiencing now in Nigeria and Kenya and many other places. But as I will not be returning home this Christmas, I can experience something of their longing to be home to celebrate the Birth of the Savior.

I plan to take up the Patriarch's call and I urge you to do the same. Keep your Christmas celebrations subdued and remember to pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters with your family and friends. Several months ago, Patriarch Sako composed this prayer which you might wish to use as you gather around your trees and tables:
the plight of our country
is deep and the suffering of Christians
is severe and frightening.
Therefore, we ask you Lord
to spare our lives, and to grant us patience,
and courage to continue our witness of Christian values
with trust and hope.
Lord, peace is the foundation of life;
grant us the peace and stability that will enable us
to live with each other without fear and anxiety,
and with dignity and joy.
Glory be to you forever.
 To give you a better sense of the Iraqi Christians are enduring, have a look at these pictures from the refugee camp in Erbil.

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