The Christmas story is very familiar to us all – the birth of Jesus in very humble, probably squalid, conditions, the adoration of the baby by people of many classes and types including shepherds from the fringes of society and wise men from a totally different land and culture. It is all so familiar that we too easily forget how extraordinary it is. So we become immune to its full impact and we turn Christmas into a very cosy season from which all but a passing thought of the event we are commemorating has been excluded.
Yet around the world the reality of the season is very different for so many Christians. For them the precarious state of affairs into which Jesus was born is a present reality too. We read in the gospels that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. For the Christians of that town, life has been very difficult for a long time now. The wise men would find it a very trying journey today getting from Jerusalem to Bethlehem because it would take hours to pass through a congested checkpoint in the security wall which separates Israel from the West Bank area of Palestine. Those Christians are under pressure from both Israel and their Muslim neighbours. The opportunities they have to make a living have deteriorated so much that significant numbers have been forced to emigrate in search of a better future.
The same is true for many Christians elsewhere in the Middle East, the natural home area of our faith. And yet they should attract not only our prayers but our admiration because they show remarkable resilience and strength of faith that often put us to shame. We have had our attention drawn by recent events to the problems Christians face in Egypt and Syria, but most countries in the region have Christian communities, many of them of significant size.
Take, for example, Iraq; now there is a country which has disappeared from the headlines! Those who worship at St George’s Church, Baghdad go to a church building that is heavily protected, with security guards on duty 24 hours a day and special measures to prevent car bomb attacks. Canon Andrew White, who ministers to the congregation, has to travel around with a large police escort. Yet neither minister nor congregation is deterred from practising the Christian faith.
A recent visitor found 600 people filling the church on a Sunday morning and many others outside who could not get in, and this despite all these people having taken a great risk of terrorist attack simply by going to church. These people were Iraqi, members of various denominations who valued the efforts that that church was making, which is not just in providing a place of worship. The church also has a clinic offering free medical and dental treatment and supports a convent of Mother Teresa’s order caring for abandoned and orphaned children. Much of this is helped by the determined efforts Canon White has made to work with Muslim clerics in Baghdad. Indeed, the staff of the clinic is a mixture of Christians, Sunni and Shia Muslims, and also Jews.
The essential message of Christmas that God, incarnate in Jesus Christ, has come into this world and is actively present here and now. As Christ’s church, we are his body in the world today and it behoves us to take that as seriously as do those Christians in Baghdad, even though we don’t have to take anything like the risk to our personal safety and comfort by doing so. So let us celebrate Christmas wholeheartedly, not just by coming to church but by praying for all those Christians who are also celebrating the festival in much less security and also by resolving to live out what we believe by being Christ’s active presence here and now.
I hope you all have a very happy and blessed Christmas.