06 December 2014

Homily - 7 December 2014: Jesus has always been with us

I am not preaching anywhere this weekend, but if I were, this is something of what I would say:

The Second Sunday of Advent (B)

Dear brothers and sisters,

Most of us are preparing to celebrate the Birth of the Savior in relative comfort and ease. The trees are going up, stockings are being hung, presents bought and wrapped; dinners are being planned, travels arranged, and the smell of cookies is beginning to fill our homes. Certainly much of this brings a certain busyness and maybe even a franticness to these festive days, but they are not generally a cause for someone to speak comfort to us (cf. Isaiah 40:1). Yet there are those now who need desperately to hear a word of comfort.

Over the past several months, we have witnessed the brutal and barbaric persecution of Christians at the hands of the members of the Islamic State especially, but also of Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, and others. Even now, the Islamic State continues to gain territory, strength, and influence in Iraq and Syria - and throughout the world - as other caliphates unite with it and as it establishes colonies in the Middle East, India, and Africa. How can we not cry out all the more, “Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation” (Psalm85:8)?!

In recent days, word has to come to us in recent days through Canon Andrew White, the only Anglican vicar still in Baghdad, of a particularly disturbing act of persecution. In an interview last week with the Christian Broadcast Network, Canon White described the martyrdom of four children:
ISIS turned up and they said to the children, “you say the words that you will follow Muhammad.” The Children, all under 15, four of them, they said, “no, we love Yasua [Jesus]. We have always loved Yasua. We have always followed Yasua. Yasua has always been with us." [The Militants] said, “say the words!” [The Children] said, “no, we can't do that.” They chopped all their heads off.

How do you respond to that? You just cry. They are my children. That is what we have been going through. That is what we are going through.[1]
Surely our hearts ache at such news, but at the same time our hearts ought to be filled also with a profound joy at so great a witness to the truth of the Gospel, a “Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”[2]

It was only four years ago that all external celebrations of Christmas were cancelled in Baghdad after 68 Catholics – including two priests - were killed in a brutal attack in the church of Our Lady of Salvation just days before Christmas.[3] As I consider the witness of those children, I cannot help but wonder what the celebration of Christmas will be like in Baghdad this year. I also wonder what it will be like for Christians in Syria and the rest of Irag, as well as in Nigeria and Kenya where our brothers and sisters are also being greatly persecuted because, like those four children, they will not renounce their faith in Jesus Christ, even at the threat of death.

Compared with what so many Christians face today, the frustrations of our Christmas preparations mean very little and can help us focus on what is truly essential. These days of Advent serve to help us heed the words of Saint John the Baptist: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths” and to repent of our sins before “the day of the Lord will come like a thief … and the earth and everything done on it will be found out” (Mark 1:3; II Peter 3:10). It is, then, of the utmost importance that as we await the coming of the Lord Jesus in glory with his angels and saints, that we “be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace,” even in the midst of persecution (II Peter 3:14).

As we await that day when “kindness and truth shall meet,” when “justice and peace shall kiss,” what word of comfort is spoken to those who suffer for the sake of the Gospel (Psalm 85:11)? What glad tidings do they hear upon the heights?

Today the Lord “proclaims peace to his people” in the very words spoken by those four child martyrs: Jesus has always been with us (Psalm 85:9). Those four children understood the tremendous and fundamental importance of the Incarnation: “Behold, the virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us’” (Matthew 1:23; Isaiah 7:14). They took to heart the words of Saint John the Baptist and prepared their hearts well for the Lord. They were ready to give their lives for him who was always with them so that they might always be with him.

Let us, then, not be distracted by the hustle and bustle of these days, but let us strive above all to prepare our hearts to receive the Lord when at last he comes! These remaining days of Advent are a momentous opportunity for us to deepen our relationship with the Lord Jesus. If we were to die this very day - whether through persecution, an accident, or natural causes - could we say with those children, “We have always loved Jesus. We have always followed Jesus. Jesus has always been with us?" On the day that we see the Lord face to face, it would be wise to be able to have these words truly on our lips that the Good Shepherd may then gather us into his arms and lead us with care (cf. Isaiah 40:11). Amen.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories.” In The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, Christopher Tolkien, ed. (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006), 153.

[3] Cf. Daren J. Zehnle, “Good News and Bad News in Iraq," Servant and Steward, December 23, 2010.

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