CHRISTMAS MESSAGE 2015
Bishop Dr. Munib Younan
Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land
“The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Salaam and grace to you this Christmas from the land of Jesus’ birth. Wherever you are in the world, may you celebrate it in peace, and may we all live in peace in the New Year. There is no better time to speak about peace than at Christmas, when the Prince of Peace was born among us.
At Christmastime we hear the story of the birth of Jesus, which took place in the little town of Bethlehem and was announced by an angel who said,
“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)
This angelic announcement came as a shock to the shepherds in the fields that night. They were even afraid of the Good News!
Today, we welcome the angel’s voice as the center of the Christmas message and the source of our joy. Sometimes, however, as we are consumed with the beautiful songs and the beautiful decorations of the season, we may forget the babe in the manger. We may lose the true meaning and message of our celebrations.
At Christmastime, we do not care to hear the voice of John the Baptist, for example, who calls to us from the wilderness: “Repent!” and “Prepare the way of the Lord!” and “Make his paths straight!” Such prophetic announcements seem to get in the way of our festivities. We don’t want anyone or anything to disturb our Christmas feasts and our Christmas joy.
However, the disturbing voice of John the Baptist is also a much-needed part of the Christmas story, because even as people across the world are decorating their homes with lights, a cloud of darkness has settled over us. The threat of terror and war is felt in nearly every place around the globe—in Paris, in Beirut, in Mali, in Nigeria, in San Bernardino and other places. Refugees are fleeing violence and persecution in great numbers. Wars and rumors of wars are coming to nations which were once on good terms. Extremists are finding a voice and even followers in every religion. Here in the Middle East, many Christians are feeling squeezed from every side of the divide.
It is clear that John the Baptist’s prophetic words are for us today. Nations need to repent. Politicians needs to change their ways. Humanity must turn back to God. The path to peace, justice, and equality must be made straight – not only through goodwill and good feelings, but through good policy and good governments.
With the world boiling over, it seems we are walking in deep darkness. This darkness blinds us, causing people to be overcome by hatred for those who are different. This is the darkness the prophet Isaiah speaks of when he writes,
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.” (Isaiah 9:2)
As the world gathers to celebrate the birth of the Messiah, we must remember that the joyful news of Christmas is also disturbing news. Like John the Baptist’s voice crying in the wilderness, the angel’s announcement shocks and surprises us. It shakes our foundations and challenges our prejudices. It pierces the darkness of our sin with the light of God’s peace, justice, and mercy.
This year, we receive the announcement of Jesus’ birth as exactly the kind of disturbing, prophetic news the world desperately needs. We take comfort in knowing the baby Jesus was born at night, when darkness ruled the earth. And we rejoice that the light of Jesus Christ still shines brightly from the heart of Palestine, giving Christians everywhere hope and strength. As it was written,
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
This Christmas I call on all who have heard the disturbing, world-changing news of Jesus’ birth to become prophetic messengers of God’s peace, justice, love and mercy. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” God’s answer to a broken world was to send us the light of Jesus Christ. Therefore, we do not preach darkness. We do not teach revenge or despair. We do not resort to extremism. We do not teach xenophobia toward other religions and people. We are witnesses to the light of love.
For this reason, I ask all who have followed the star and have been touched by the love of the babe of Bethlehem to share the light of peace, justice, and equality with those living in darkness.
This year, we especially want to share the light with two communities:
Refugees, and the Christians of the Middle East.
First, we have seen how those who have felt the full weight of the darkness this year are the countless refugees fleeing their homes in search of safety, as the Holy Family did. Many countries are opening their borders, and many communities are opening their hearts and homes to give these families hope for the future. I give thanks for these acts of mercy and kindness, which are truly in the spirit of Christmas.
At the same time, some are afraid to share their bread with strangers, and today’s political rhetoric treats refugees only as numbers to be counted and threats to be contained. As a refugee myself, I call on leaders of all nations and all people to remember that these are human beings, made in the image of God. We must not allow these brothers and sisters to move from the darkness of oppression and killing to another darkness—the darkness of hatred, of exclusion, and of religious prejudice. We must not allow our fear to keep the light of hope, the light of peace, the light of gender justice and human rights, and the light of freedom of religion from shining on our refugee sisters and brothers. God calls us to embrace them with the warmth and light of Christ.
Secondly, today there are many who are worried for the future of Christianity in the Middle East. As always, I say that it is not enough to be worried or concerned or to generalize. Our Christian brothers and sisters in Syria, in Iraq, and in many other countries are suffering. They know only the darkness of injustice, persecution, and displacement. It is not enough to pray for their safety. They need safe and secure countries for their return home. They need laws to protect them and neighbors to respect them. They need to be empowered for justice. And they need a light to reveal the way.
Today, we Arab Christians living near the manger of Bethlehem are asking, “What does the world mean when they say they want to care for Christians in the Middle East? Do they see us having a role to play here today, or do they see us as museum objects?”
Many Christians in this place are suffering, and some are thinking that the only choice is to leave for another country. Many have already left. But we are seeing that there is no place which is safer than another. There is no country and no continent untouched by the darkness of violence and prejudice. Truly I tell you, we Christians have been in the vicinity of the manger for two thousand years, and we want to stay for another two thousand years.
For this reason, Arab Christianity has a vital role to play in these times. I especially call on Arab and Middle Eastern Christians to remember that God has called us to be here for a purpose. It is not a liability to be an Arab and Middle Eastern Christian. It is a privilege to be living witnesses to the light of Christ in the region where the light first came into the world.
We have the privilege and responsibility to share with the world what it looks like to live in peace with our Muslim and Jewish neighbors. In a time when the darkness of religious hatred seems to be growing, we can share the light of living together. We are called to be peace-builders, brokers of justice, and prophetic voices, even in the midst of suffering, persecution, occupation, and extremism. We are called to be a light in the darkness because we have experienced the light of love from the manger in Bethlehem. As it was written by the prophet Isaiah:
“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)
More than two thousand years ago, the Prince of Peace was born in Bethlehem, reconciling us to God, and calling us to live in harmony with our neighbors of other religions, other languages, and other cultures. Today, we are still learning how to live in the light of that disturbing, world-changing event. If it was true then, why not now? And if it is possible here, then why not in Syria and Iraq? Why not in France and the United States? Why not in other parts of the world?
The Prince of Peace is born. Love has come, a light in the darkness. Therefore, Christmas is a time to be strong and steadfast, and to trust that even when the night seems the darkest, it cannot overcome the light of Our Lord Jesus. All that oppresses us cannot conquer us. Again, we rejoice in the Good News:
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
Even though we are living in dark times, I invite you, my brothers and sisters in Christ around the world, to find hope, peace and joy in the true meaning of Christmas this year. Let your celebrations be feasts not of consumerism, but of love for your neighbor. Let your prayers for peace become seeds of prophetic action. And wherever you are this Christmas, let your witness be a light shining in this present darkness, as the birth of the baby Jesus in Bethlehem brought light to the whole world. Let us commit ourselves to pray for each other, and pray that God will change the darkness of this stage in history by the power of the light of Christ.
I wish you
A BLESSED NEW YEAR 2016
Full of Just Peace, Forgiveness and Reconciliation