In August, Fr. Ben Kiely -- a friend of mine who is pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in Stowe, Vermont -- was asked by parishioners how they could help the Iraqi Christians who were being exterminated by ISIS.
Amid the good news of great joy of Christmas, astride the reverential beauty of the silent and holy night in the little town of Bethlehem, and beyond the infectious imitation of the Magi's generosity to others, especially children, in God's name at this time of year, there are always three parts of the mystery that prevent our forgetting the sins from which the Son of God was born as a baby to save us.
The first is framed by the expressions, "They had no room for them in the inn" and "He came to his own but his own people did not accept him." People were too busy with what they were doing that not only did they fail to notice that the long-awaited Messiah had come but they also didn't give basic charity to a woman in labor.
The second is the reaction of the chief priests and scribes who formed Herod's court of advisors. Even though Herod and all of Jerusalem was in great disturbance after the Magi informed them of the star that they believed indicated the presence of a newborn king, the priests and scribes didn't budge from the palace to make the simple six-mile journey to investigate whether Micah's prophecy that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem might have been fulfilled.
The last is Herod's reaction. When the wise men didn't return, out of paranoia and jealous rage, he sent out his henchmen to massacre every baby boy under two in the Bethlehem region.
Inhospitality. Indifference. Indiscriminate slaughter. These anti-Christmas vices are the shadows that linger even as the Light shining in the darkness was born.
To enter into the true spirit of Christmas we need to acknowledge that these shadows still lurk and make the choice to live rather in Christ's light.
This Advent my thoughts are very much with the Christians in Erbil, one of the largest refugee camps of our spiritual brothers and sisters displaced by the anti-Christian barbarism of ISIS in Iraq and Syria earlier this year. As winter approaches, over 120,000 are still living in tents and open-air buildings and almost totally dependent on alms for survival.
ISIS had given them the choice to convert to Islam or be massacred. They chose not to deny their faith and to flee as they witnessed many of their fellow Christians beheaded, crucified and otherwise butchered. Many of the young girls of their families were raped or "married" to ISIS troops. Their houses were contemptuously marked with the Arabic letter N (nun) for Nasarean -- to denote they were followers of Jesus of Nazareth -- and then pillaged or destroyed. Many needed to flee towns like Mosul where their Christian families had lived for 1,600 years.
Now they dwell in something far less secure and warm than the cave in which the Holy Family abided in Bethlehem. What remains of the Iraqi government gives them no support. Most in the media ignore their plight. The vast majority of the world has forgotten about them. Last week a Syrian Catholic Archbishop said in an interview that 21 of his people had frozen to death in refugee camps, including five children.
Christians today cannot do anything about the inhospitality, indifference and indiscriminate slaughter that accompanied the Holy Family in Bethlehem, but we can, in some way, repent and repair for it in the way we treat these Christian families who have lived through a modern slaughter of the Holy Innocents and are now desperate for help and hospitality.
We might not be able to address all of their issues, but we're not helpless to address some. I'd like to suggest one way.
In August, Fr. Ben Kiely -- a friend of mine who is pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in Stowe, Vermont -- was asked by parishioners how they could help the Iraqi Christians who were being exterminated by ISIS. His first response was to urge them to contact their Congressmen and ask Congress to get involved. But later that day, taking a walk while praying the Rosary and noticing the rubber wrist band he was wearing to express solidarity with a good cause, he came up with another idea.
With the help of parishioners, local manufacturer Image Outfitters and the owners of a local UPS store, he set up a means to make and distribute rubber wristbands, lapel pins, zipper pulls and car magnets featuring the Arabic nun, as a means to raise money and awareness and solidarity for the plight of Christians. All of the proceeds go to Aid to the Church in Need (CAN), which is one of the intrepid Catholic organizations on the ground in Erbil seeking to minister to our displaced spiritual siblings.
Fr. Kiely has created a website, www.nasarean.org, where people can order these items. They've already sold 16,000 items and been able to raise more than $30,000 to give to CAN to help build stable residences and schools and assist with other immediate humanitarian and spiritual needs.
I ordered several hundred dollars worth of these supplies as soon as they were available and my parishioners have been generously buying and distributing them.
I've also been wearing the lapel pin on my suit coat, which has given me a chance to witness at wakes, dinners, talks in various places in the Diocese and speeches in 12 different states over the last couple of months. People always ask questions about what it means and once they find out, they want to do something. These items are a small way to that our Christian solidarity can go viral.
Fr. Kiely's work shows the difference one person can make. Imagine what we all can do together.
As we near Christmas and ponder the sufferings of the Holy Family in the midst of the joy of Christ's birth, we can make a difference in easing the plight of other families whose celebration of Christmas won't be in toasty houses with trees, lights and stockings full of gifts.
Please consider visiting nasarean.org and ordering these low-priced, high-quality items that you can wear during the Christmas season and beyond -- and give out along with your Christmas gifts and cards -- to raise awareness, spur prayers and solidarity, and give the Holy Family in disguise the type of care we all wish they would have received the first time around.
Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.
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