19 December 2018
In this image from 2016, women light candles before attending Christmas Eve liturgy at the Melkite Catholic Cathedral in Damascus, Syria. (photo: CNS/Youssef Badawi, EPA)
All over the world in the places where CNEWA serves, Christians—Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant—next week will be celebrating Christmas. Earlier in the month Jews around the world celebrated Hanukkah. In different ways both Christmas and Hanukkah are festivals of light.
We human are at times odd creatures. Although we spend as much of our lives in darkness as in light, we are never quite comfortable with darkness. In the modern world we really don’t know what darkness is, other than the condition that exists before we turn on the lights. Blackouts, especially in big cities, become epic events and everyone remembers where they were “when the lights went out.”
For ancient peoples, darkness was far more powerful. What artificial light there was came from candles. While the wealthy might have many candles, the poor had few. When darkness set in, life changed. No one in the ancient world would consider themselves a “night person,” unless they were thieves or robbers.
In the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, light is a very important thing. Light is connected with divinity: God dwells in unapproachable light. In the highly sophisticated and even academic Nicean Creed Christ is proclaimed “Light of light.” The prophets often spoke of the people walking in darkness — and in describing the saving power of God, Isaiah (9:2) speaks of the people who walked in darkness seeing a great light, which is God. The psalmist (36:9) calls God the “fountain of light” and goes on to say “in your light we see the light.” Bonaventure, the great Franciscan saint and philosopher, spent a great deal of time thinking about what it means to say “in God’s light we see the light.”
Light and darkness also become metaphors for goodness and evil. One of the documents found among the Dead Sea scrolls was entitled “The Battle of the Children of Darkness with the Children of Light.” Light is good; darkness is not. Jesus himself is the light which enlightens his followers.
Hanukkah, which celebrates the rededication of the Temple after it was desecrated by the Seleucid Greek conquerors, recalls how the menorah was able to remain lit in the Temple for seven days, despite having enough oil for only one day. Hanukkah is for Jews the festival of lights par excellence.
Interestingly, while we Christians spend much of this season stringing lights and lighting candles to mark the birth of Christ, the New Testament is silent as to the time of year in which Jesus was born. It was something which just did not interest the Gospel writers, who were concerned with who Jesus was and what his teachings were. The overwhelming event of the Resurrection made things like the date and circumstances of Jesus’ birth quite secondary. In fact, two of the Gospels—Mark and John—do not mention it at all.
As Christianity took root and grew in the Roman Empire, converts from paganism were familiar with two very important pagan celebrations that took place around the winter solstice—the longest night of the year. Those feasts were the Saturnalia and the feast of Sol invictus, “the unconquerable sun.” These feasts were set at the darkest time of the year but also precisely at the winter solstice, after which the days started to become longer. Both of these festivals were extremely popular with Romans.
Not having a concrete date for the birth of Jesus, Christians opted to take the images of light overcoming darkness of the Roman festivals and to give them new meaning with the birth of Christ, the Light of the World.
As we Christians celebrate Christmas in our electrified world, it might be helpful to reflect a bit on darkness as something more powerful and frightening that merely having the switch off. When we see the darkness of war, suffering, racism, poverty and hatred in our world, the importance of light impresses us. The light of Christ dispels and overcomes that darkness.
In his light, the followers of Christ not only see the light but are ourselves called to become lights, to live in our world as enlightened and illuminating witnesses to the one whose birth we celebrate on Christmas.
19 December 2018
Tags: Christianity Judaism
Palestinian girls wear Santa hats on a class trip to Manger Square outside of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, West Bank, on 17 December. (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
19 December 2018
Pope Francis has encouraged generous support for victims of the ongoing war in Ukraine. (video: Rome Reports/YouTube)
Russia warns Ukraine on threats of war (Newsweek) Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned on Tuesday that Ukraine is preparing a provocation against his country with the support of its Western allies. ”Kiev is preparing yet another provocation at our borders, with the help of its Western supporters. We would not start a war, but our response will be most convincing,” Lavrov said…
Pope encourages generosity, special collection to aid victims in Ukraine (Rome Reports) Pope Francis is one of the few international leaders who continues to remember that a war has been going on in Ukraine since 2014. That is why in April 2016 he asked for generosity to help the victims of one of the most forgotten conflicts in the world…
Indian Christians seek protection over Christmas (UCANews.com) Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh has been asked to ensure police protection for Christians in the lead-up to Christmas amid fears of attacks by hard-line Hindu militants. The ecumenical Christian group Persecution Relief has sent a letter to Singh making the request and backing it up with a list of violent incidents during past Christmas periods…
Jerusalem’s neighbors are becoming more ultra-Orthodox (Haaretz) Research about the identity of home buyers in Jerusalem conducted by Dr. Eitan Regev, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, shows that the growth in the number of ultra-Orthodox Jews among home buyers in the capital has almost completely stopped, and the percentage of Haredim buying homes in Jerusalem is similar to their share of the overall population…
More Christians visiting Turkey on pilgrimage (Andalou Agency) An ancient city, home to a Christian church, in western Turkey has attracted thousands of Christians in 2018, according to a Turkish academic. Mehmet Ozhanli, an archeology professor at Isparta’s Suleyman Demirel University, said 15,000 Christians visited St. Paul Church in Pisidia Antiocheia ancient city in western Isparta province for pilgrimage this year…
18 December 2018
Tags: India Ukraine Jerusalem Turkey
A Palestinian woman walks by a mosaic of the Nativity in Bethlehem, West Bank, on 17 December. (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
18 December 2018
in this image from January, Syrian refugees wait outside their shelters at Zaatari camp near Mafraq, Jordan. The pope joined the UN and Caritas today in observing World Day of Migrants and Refugees, and he urged communities to open their hearts to those arriving in their lands.
(photo: CNS/Muhammad Hamed, Reuters)
Pope, UN, Caritas mark World Day of Migrants and Refugees (Vatican News) As the world marked the United Nations International Migrants Day on Tuesday, Pope Francis urged host communities to open their hearts and homes to those arriving in their lands. “Jesus knows well the pain of not being welcomed. May our hearts not be closed as were the houses in Bethlehem,” wrote the Pope on his Twitter account @Pontifex…
Pope: scapegoating migrants in political speeches is unacceptable (CNS) In today’s climate of mistrust, rejection and nationalism, the world urgently needs peacemakers and politicians who protect and lovingly serve others, Pope Francis said in his annual message for the World Day of Peace on 1 January. ”Terror exerted over those who are most vulnerable contributes to the exile of entire populations who seek a place of peace,” he said, and “political addresses that tend to blame every evil on migrants and to deprive the poor of hope are unacceptable…”
Ukrainian Catholic leader welcomes head of new independent Orthodox church (CNS) Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, major archbishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, said “the future of our church, our people and of a free, independent Ukrainian state in Europe depends today on how we nurture unity and overcome what separates us…”
‘The Gaza blockade is strangling us’ (BBC) In Gaza, two million people are poised to slip deeper into poverty, and basic services are at risk of collapse, according to the UN. It is calling for $350 million from international donors, following a drop in US funding for Palestinians…
Catholic religious sisters raise hope among Kerala’s flood victims (NCR) Church volunteers cleaned about 250,000 houses and helped people return home from relief camps after the floodwaters receded. The Jesus Youth, a global Catholic charismatic youth movement with roots in Kerala, cleaned houses infested with insects, snakes and eels. Caritas India, the church’s aid agency, distributed 16,000 kits with food and sanitary items, each one costing 4,000 rupees ($55). The priest credits Catholic religious women for playing a crucial role of bringing hope to flood victims…
In Jerusalem, Santa rides a camel (Israel21c.org) He has a certificate from Santa School in Denver, Colorado, but Issa Kassissieh doesn’t come down the chimney in America — he’s the resident Father Christmas in Jerusalem’s Old City and he’s traded the traditional reindeer sleigh for a camel…
17 December 2018
Tags: Pope Francis Refugees Jerusalem Kerala
Pope Francis holds a baby on the eve of his 82nd birthday during a 16 December audience with children and families from the Santa Marta Dispensary, a Vatican charity that offers special help to mothers and children in need, at the Vatican. (photo: CNS/Giuseppe Lami, EPA)
If the Holy Family lived in Rome and the baby Jesus had a cold or flu, Mary and Joseph certainly would bring him to the Vatican pediatric clinic for help, Pope Francis said.
The Vatican’s St. Martha Dispensary was founded in 1922 and, staffed by volunteers, it provides medical care and basic necessities to any child in need; most of the clients are immigrants.
Dozens of children, their parents and the clinic volunteers anticipated Pope Francis’ 82nd birthday, singing for him and giving him a large cake on 16 December. His birthday was the next day.
“I wish you all a merry Christmas, a good holy Christmas, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for all that you do. Really,” the pope said. “And, I also hope that no one gets indigestion from a cake that big. Thank you!”
In brief comments to the women religious who run the clinic and to the doctors and others who volunteer there, Pope Francis said, “Working with children isn’t easy, but they teach us much.”
“They taught me something: to understand the reality of life, you must lower yourself, like you bend down to kiss a child. They teach us this,” he said. “The proud and haughty cannot understand life because they are not capable of lowering themselves.”
Everyone who works at the clinic gives children something, the pope said. “But they give us this proclamation, this teaching: bow down, be humble and you will learn to understand life and understand people.”
17 December 2018
Tags: Pope Francis
Over the weekend, Ukrainian religious leaders elected Metropolitan Epiphanius as the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. (photo: Vatican Media)
Ukraine moves to form a unified Orthodox Church independent from Russia (NPR) Ukraine elected the head of a newly unified Orthodox Church this weekend, a move that the nation’s president hailed as an important safeguard against future Russian aggression. The church aims for independence from the Russian Orthodox Church, and Saturday’s election is just one step in a process that could take decades. Nearly 200 bishops, priests and other church officials elected 39-year-old Metropolitan Epiphanius on Saturday as the Ukrainian church’s head…
Church vandalized in India (Vatican News) With Christmas a little over a week away, the festive mood among Christians in the northeast Indian state of Assam suffered a setback when they discovered their church vandalized. Villagers on their way to work Saturday morning, found St Thomas Catholic Church and its grotto in Chapatoli village near Duliajan vandalized. They noticed the church door open and spotted the statue of Mother Mary knocked down from the grotto…
Ethnic violence escalates in southern Ethiopia (Al Jazeera) At least 21 people have been killed in two days of intense fighting between ethnic groups in southern Ethiopia amid escalating violence that has sent hundreds fleeing across the border to neighbouring Kenya. The violence broke out on Thursday and Friday near the town of Moyale, on the border with Kenya, in a region claimed by both the Oromo, the largest ethnic group in the country, and the Somali ethnic group…
New book explores war damage in Aleppo (Vatican News) Two years after government troops drove rebel fighters out of the city, the first book detailing the damage done to the Ancient city has been published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)…
Vatican concert highlights refugees (Vatican News) This year the Paul VI Hall is the setting for this event which boasts an impressive line-up of musical talent. There will be performances from American singer Anastasia, Italian performer Alessandra Amoroso, Dee Dee Bridgewater and the “New Direction Tennessee State Gospel Choir”. The theme for this 2018 Concert is “refugees” and the proceeds from this evening of entertainment will go to the Don Bosco Mission…
14 December 2018
Tags: India Ethiopia Ukraine Vatican Russian Orthodox
Angeline Fernando and Vangie Lapada, foreign workers from the Philippines, take a selfie wearing Santa hats at the Christmas market in the central bus station in Tel Aviv, Israel. The market offers an opportunity for foreigners to buy decorations for Christmas in the Jewish state.
(photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
For foreign workers and other nonlocal Christians living in Israel, celebrating Christmas far from loved ones in a country where Christians are a minority can be a difficult time.
Used to a festive Christmas season back home in the Philippines, many of the Filipino caretakers who work with mainly Jewish families have learned to adjust their expectations.
“We are missing our families. We are used to seeing all the Christmas decorations everywhere,” said Vangie Lapada, 51, who has been working in Israel for five years. She is a caretaker in the Golan Heights in northern Israel, where there are few Christians.
But as Israel’s population has become more diverse to include foreign caretakers, migrant workers and asylum seekers -- many of whom are Christians living in cities where Jewish residents are the majority -- Jewish Israelis also have adjusted to a new reality. One of the changing points has also been the arrival of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union where the New Year celebration, Novy God, uses many of the usual Christmas symbols for the nonreligious holiday.
On a mid-December Sunday, Lapada used her day off to travel to Tel Aviv with a friend. On the fourth floor of the cavernous Tel Aviv central bus station, they visited the pop-up Christmas market with its twinkling Christmas lights and festive Santa Claus apparel. A large banner in the center of the station announced the location of the market.
The stalls were set up several years ago by Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union wanting to openly celebrate the Novy God holiday. The market also has provided a place for Filipino foreign workers and others to enjoy some trappings of Christmas.
Novy God was the only nonpolitical holiday permitted by the communist regime in the former Soviet Union, which incorporated some customary Christmas symbols -- such as the tree -- into the celebration to placate people. The communist government also added parallel symbols from traditional folktales such as the Snow Maiden and Grandfather Winter. All religious celebrations were forbidden under the communist regime.
“This (market) makes me happy because it brings a bit of our tradition,” said Lapada as she and Angeline Fernando, 48, snapped selfies of themselves wearing Santa hats in front of a white plastic Christmas tree covered with decorations. English Christmas songs played from a stereo, adding to the atmosphere.
Lapada said that, in Israel, the main focus of their celebrations is the Filipino parishes in the larger cities and in the homes of friends who are not live-in caretakers, but she still misses the general atmosphere of Christmas in the Philippines.
“My employer is a religious Jew, so we don’t have a tree in the apartment. I come here to take pictures and feel the spirit of Christmas. These decorations are part of Christmas for us,” said Lapada.
Fernando, who works in Tel Aviv caring for a Jewish woman originally from France, said her employer enjoys the Christmas lights, and they combine Hanukkah and Christmas decorations in the apartment.
“Every day we have visitors, and they all say how beautiful the decorations are because of the colors. But I come here to see the trees, and I feel like I am in the Philippines,” Fernando said.
Because of its unique decorations made in Russia and other high-quality Christmas items, the market even sometimes attracts local Christians who live in areas where other Christmas decorations are sold.
“My mother wanted to buy the special glass decorations they have here instead of the plastic ornaments sold in Jerusalem,” said Rami, a Palestinian Christian from Jerusalem who declined to give his last name. His mother went from one stall to another, looking over delicate, hand-decorated ornaments nestled in boxes; larger ornaments made to look like snowflakes; and china Santa Claus/Grandfather Winter dolls.
Vasilisa Gorbichova, 9, who moved with her parents from Russia one-and-a-half years ago, helped her mother, Olga Alaeva, 35, decide which lights to buy. Alaeva is Christian and her husband is Jewish. For Vasilisa, the decorations were all about Novy God.
“I love the night of Novy God. I get presents from Grandfather Winter,” she said. “My favorite thing is to put up the decorations. My friends accept it, they know me and understand that I am Russian, and this is our tradition.”
Yulia, 28, a seller from Tel Aviv who moved to Israel from Russia three years ago, said the market runs a brisk business in the weeks leading up to Christmas and Novy God. Sellers have never experienced any negative response from Jewish Israelis walking by the market, she said.
“In Tel Aviv, there are a lot of people from different countries, so it is a very tolerant city,” she said. “This (market) is the best place to work on the holiday.”
Diana Giraldo, 28, a Colombian who moved to Israel this fall, was preparing for her first Christmas away from home.
“It is very hard and sad to celebrate Christmas without my family, so I am very happy to see this market, because I didn’t know where I was going to get my decorations from,” Giraldo said. She heard about the market through a Facebook page, she said.
“This is our tradition. This is what we are used to,” she said. “Now we can go home and put up our decorations.”
14 December 2018
Tags: Israel Tel Aviv
Pope Francis had lunch with poor people invited to the Vatican in November to mark World Day of the Poor. He's extended a similar invitation to the poor for a few days before Christmas.
(photo: Vatican Media)
Pope invites poor to Christmas lunch (Vatican News) n the spirit of Christmas, Pope Francis is inviting a group of poor people to a lunch offered by the athletes of Italy’s military finance police, said the Office of Papal Charities. On behalf of Pope Francis, the Office headed by the Pope’s official Almoner, Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, has invited the poor people to the Christmas lunch on 18 December hosted by the Gruppo Sportivo Fiamme Gialle (Yellow Flames Sporting Group) at the sports centre of the Guardia di Finanza (Finance Police), at Castelporziano, close to the seaside…
Russian-Ukraine tensions reach Mount Athos (The Guardian) Although most of the monks on Athos are Greek, for many Russians, as well as Ukrainians and Belarusians, a pilgrimage to Mount Athos has become almost like an Orthodox version of the Islamic hajj, seen as a spiritual must for any true believer. [Patriarch] Kirill has banned Russians from taking holy communion in the churches of Athos, calling any priests who bless the ecumenical patriarch schismatics, leading to a dilemma for those Russians who want to visit...
In first, Indian official to take office amid Christian rituals (Times of India) Mizo National Front is set to take oath in a predominantly Christian ceremony on Saturday, making it a first for a government in Mizoram. Apart from readings of Biblical verses, religious hymns like Handel’s famed ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ will be sung to mark the occasion. “We are doing it for the first time,” Lalruatkima, a newly-elected MNF legislator, said on Thursday, adding, “Singing of gospel and reading of verses from the Bible will follow the national anthem…”
Hundreds of Christians in Egypt protest at police killing (Channel News Asia) Hundreds of Coptic Christians on Thursday attended the burial of a father and his son who were killed by a police officer in Egypt’s Minya province, amid cries for the state to provide more protection. The Copts, who make up around 10 percent of the population, have long complained of discrimination. They have also frequently been attacked by Islamist militants who see them as infidels, prompting authorities to place armed guards outside churches and monasteries…
Ethiopia moving troops from Eritrean border (AP) Ethiopian military officials on Friday announced they are moving troops away from the border with Eritrea, months after the former rivals made a surprising peace…
13 December 2018
Tags: India Pope Francis Ethiopia Ukraine Russian Orthodox
An Arab couple are married at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Montreal. Migrants and refugees often struggle to maintain their customs, their faith and their culture in a new land.
(photo: Cody Christopulos)
Last week, I looked at how we live in a world of migrants — and how CNEWA seeks to serve that world. But what happens to migrants after they settle in a new place? This is a question and challenge facing all of us.
We at CNEWA describe our mission as “accompanying the Eastern Churches.” Since our beginning over 90 years ago, CNEWA has accompanied the Eastern Churches through some of their most difficult times — through displacement, exile and outright genocide. More recently, since the turn of the millennium, Christians have been under incredible pressure in the Middle East; threats from ISIS, from civil war, from violence and terror of all kinds in the region have forced many to take flight.
As a result, the Christian population in the Middle East has plummeted. Christians of the Middle East form a considerable part of the movement of peoples we wrote about last week. Tens of thousands of Christians are refugees or displaced persons, forced to emigrate from their homes.
We are—or we like to think we are—familiar with the problems these people face. They are fleeing for their lives; their cities, homes, business, schools and very lives have been destroyed. They are struggling to survive. But even after their survival has been assured, even after they have arrived in countries where they are safe, refugees face new and daunting problems.
To begin with, there are problems of how they can practice their faith. Christians refugees from the Middle East often belong to one of the Eastern Churches—the so-called sui juris churches, which are fully Catholic and in communion with Latin Rite Catholics. Like their Orthodox counterparts, these Eastern Catholics are often quite different from their fellow Catholics of the Latin Rite. They have traditions which go back to the time of the Apostles. Their liturgical and sacramental practices are often the things which make these churches most visibly different from Latin Rite Catholics. They traditionally use ancient languages such as Syriac and Coptic. They very often have married clergy, which is now permitted outside their historical territories. Many of these churches have a Patriarch or Major Archbishop. They have a unique spirituality and theology which has sustained them for 2,000 years. But suddenly they find themselves in Germany, Scandinavia, Canada, Australia and to a lesser extent in the United States. Sometimes they are even surrounded by fellow Christians who view their Eastern form of Christianity with confusion and even suspicion.
How do these Christians maintain their traditions, rooted in the culture, theology and languages of the Middle East, in the West of the 21st century?
To me there seems to be two extremes which must be avoided.
The first extreme to avoid is complete assimilation to the new culture. The traditions, foreign as they are to the new cultures, may seem to become quaint and eccentric and ultimately become irrelevant. Often lacking infrastructures for their own churches in a new homeland, these Christians become absorbed into the majority Latin Rite or Protestant churches and, after a few generations, disappear. An important part of their history, thus, is lost.
The second extreme to avoid is the formation of ghettos. ”Little Assyrias,” “Little Chaldaeas,” etc. can spring up where these Christians separate themselves from the surrounding culture and live as if they were still in the Middle East, still speaking their ancient languages and maintaining their customs. While this may work for a while, the younger generations will ultimately resist speaking the language of the immigrant community, separate themselves by adapting to the dominant culture and leave behind shrinking populations of people who are ultimately alienated from their homelands and not integrated into their new country.
We need to remember that despite appearances, Christianity is not exclusively a western European phenomenon. The categories of the Greek and Roman world have played a huge part in the development of Western Christianity. But the operative word here is part. Christianity is far broader, richer and more diverse than Western Christianity alone. A thriving Eastern Christianity is important for the health of all Christians.
As more Eastern Christians settle in the West, and as the horror stories from the Middle East recede into memory, it is easy to forget these people. They are in new countries. They are out of danger; they have new homes, new lives. They are OK—or so it might seem. But we shouldn’t overlook them.
If their physical existence seems secure, in fact, these Christians are facing new challenges that threaten their spiritual existence.
How can they live their faith, so deeply rooted in the East, in a new world? How can they be part of and contribute to their new home countries and at the same time be faithful and authentic to their ancient heritage?
These are questions without easy answers — and merit our time, our study and our prayers.
Tags: Refugees Migrants Eastern Catholics