Current Issue
December, 2018
Volume 44, Number 4
21 December 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

The adoration of the Magi is depicted in this icon by artist Ayman Fayez. The observance and celebration of Christmas vary around the world, with some places putting greater emphasis on Epiphany, and the visit of the Three Kings. (photo: CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Christmas is the most beloved feast in the Christian calendar. We see this again and again throughout the world CNEWA serves, with varying traditions and customs in different regions. This is true even if it is not the most important feast — which is, of course, Easter.

It’s interesting to compare and contrast these two feasts and how they are observed.

Christmas and Easter differ in many interesting ways, beginning with the date.The entire church year revolves around Easter, which is the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring. Although it is always a Sunday, it can occur on any date between the first and second full moon of spring. The reason for this is that it is known that Jesus died on Friday the 13 or 14 of Nisan in the Jewish calendar. Christmas, on the other hand, is always on the 25th of December. The date for Christmas, on the other hand, is arbitrary, since nowhere in the Bible is it mentioned on which day or even month Jesus was born. The December date for Christmas was probably chosen to replace the Roman Saturnalia and other pagan celebrations which greeted the “return” of the invincible sun (sol invictus) after the winter solstice.

The feasts also differ in their liturgical observance. The liturgies of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil are unique and occur only once a year, but the liturgy at Christmas is really no different from that of any major feast with its own readings and prayers.

Then there are scriptural differences. The events of Holy Week and Easter are recounted in each of the four Gospels and echo throughout the entire New Testament. The conception and birth of Jesus, however, appear only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and are quite different from each other.

Matthew, for example, has the story about the visit of the Magi, the massacre of the innocent children and the flight into Egypt. This Gospel also mentions that the Magi visited the Holy Family in a house (ὀικία Matthew 2:11).

Luke, on the other hand, makes no mention of the Magi, the massacre or the flight into Egypt. For Luke, the fact that Jesus is lying in a manger (φάτνη Luke 2:7, 12) is a “sign” to the shepherds in the field at the time of the birth.

Perhaps because of the varying accounts in the Gospels, Christmas is much more open to creative expression and observance. That is perhaps one reason why it is celebrated so differently around the world. In some parts of the Western Church the emphasis is strongly on 25 December; in other parts of the West, the focus is placed on the Epiphany, the feast of “Three Kings.” But were there really just three? Matthew does not say how many Magi visited the Holy Family — over the centuries, the tradition has been as high as fourteen! — but, the number three has become standard for the simple reason that there were three gifts. No one came empty-handed.

The very “openness” of Christmas to attract to itself new and different traditions is sometimes lamented and even condemned. While things certainly can get out of hand, for the most part, the “adaptability” of Christmas is, I believe, very much in line with what this great feast is about.

Christmas is the celebration of our belief that the Eternal Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, became human, i.e. “one (tested) like us in all things but sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Over the centuries some Christians have attempted to deny the full humanity of Jesus and hold that he only “appeared to be human.” The Church has always rejected that but has not always appreciated its full meaning. As the feast celebrating the humanity of the Word of God, Christmas shares in all those things which are human — diversity, adaptation, change, a certain unpredictability, even messiness. If Christmas is, in a sense, the most physical and bodily feast of the Christian calendar, that is because it is supposed to be precisely that — the celebration that God has taken on our nature, our physicality in all things but sin.

The Eternal Word was made flesh — and that is what Christmas is about.

21 December 2017
Greg Kandra

Children dressed in Santa Claus costumes sit and sleep inside a classroom before participating in Christmas celebrations on 20 December at a school in Chandigarh, India.
(photo: CNS/Ajay Verma, Reuters)

21 December 2017
Greg Kandra

A Palestinian throws a stone at Israeli forces near Ramallah, West Bank, during a 20 December protest against U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. English and Welsh bishops have expressed their solidarity to Christians in the Middle East following President Trump’s move. (photo: CNS/Goran Tomasevic, Reuters)

English and Welsh bishops appeal for action on Jerusalem (Vatican Radio) The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales have expressed their solidarity to local Churches in Jerusalem and to all Christians in the Middle East following the US President’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In a letter signed by the Archbishop of Westminster the bishops say they “count themselves among those who ‘love Jerusalem’ and ‘have every will to work and make it a land and a city of peace, life and dignity for all its inhabitants’...”

UN urges cooperation to make migration safer (Vatican Radio) The chief of the United Nations has called for solidarity with migrants whose rights need to be protected and urged for cooperation in managing migration to ensure its benefits are most widely distributed...

Security increased in Egypt for Christmas services (The Christian Post) As many as 230,000 security forces are expected to guard Christmas celebrations around Egypt next week, given the massive church and mosque bombings the country suffered earlier this year. “Holidays and vacations were canceled for security personnel and officers at all security directorates across the country,” security sources told Middle East News Agency...

Christmas in Kerala (The Hindu) Over the years, Christmas has become the most widely accepted religious celebration after Onam in Kerala. Most families, whether or not they believed in the story of Christ, invariably brought home a star at the onset of December. And then the Christmas cake...

Ultra-Orthodox woman in Jerusalem gives birth to 20th child (Times of Israel) An expectant woman who arrived at Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem to give birth earlier this week astounded staff when she revealed that the baby would be her 20th child. The ultra-Orthodox woman, 42, was from the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem, the hospital said in a statement Wednesday...

Gravity-defying villagers risk lives for Christmas trees in Georgia (National Geographic) The forested valleys of Racha could be where your Christmas tree comes from. Every year, hundreds of men, women, and children from the impoverished villages of this mountainous region risk their lives to climb more than a hundred feet into the crowns of Abies nordmanniana fir trees and collect the cones, which supply seeds to Christmas tree growers in Europe...

20 December 2017
Michael Kelly, Catholic News Service

An Iraqi woman prays during Mass in 2015 at a Catholic church in Basra. Archbishop Habib Al Nawfali of Basra warned that the country’s Christian community still feels pessimistic about the future, despite the recent announcement by the government that troops have defeated
Islamic State. (photo: CNS/Essam Al-Sudani, Reuters)

A Chaldean Catholic archbishop from southern Iraq has warned that the country’s beleaguered Christian community still feels pessimistic about the future, despite the recent announcement by the government that troops have defeated Islamic State.

Archbishop Habib Al Nawfali of Basra told Catholic News Service: “The daily practice of robberies, gang rapes, torture and murder of Christians is ongoing. Therefore, they are pondering what will be next. We are afraid of another wave of persecution that will be the end of Christians.”

The archbishop, who spoke on the fringes of a meeting on intercultural dialogue sponsored by the European Parliament in early December, said politicians in the West should lobby the Iraqi government to ensure that the Christian minority is protected. He said that he believed up to one million Christians have fled the country since the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. He described the exodus of Christians from their ancient homeland as a “disaster.”

Basra is home to some two million Iraqis, and he said Christians’ experience with the Islamic community is mixed. He said most Muslims in the city are “moderate and they don’t care for religious fanaticism. They treat us Christians equally with dignity and respect.”

However, he said: “There are fanatics who say loudly in the mosques that we are blasphemers, we are the sons of pigs and monkeys. They don’t feel shy in saying that.”

The archbishop said the reasons why Christians remain targets are often complex. “Sometimes it’s about political or economic gain ... they find that Christians are higher educated, have properties, or, for example, work as doctors in hospitals or other senior positions, so they attack them to get money.”

He also said Chaldean Catholics, who worship in the Aramaic language that Jesus spoke, “are afraid that this language will disappear in the next generation because our community is now distributed everywhere.” He said there are currently Chaldean communities in 64 countries, and many of them are now worshiping in the local language rather than their mother tongue.

Describing what has happened the Christians in the country as “genocide,” he said the international community should make it a priority to protest the rights of the native people of Iraq, including the Christians.

“We need support politically from Western leaders, and Christian villages need help economically to open workshops to provide employment or for the reconstruction of houses,” the archbishop said.

Asked about preparations for Christmas, the archbishop said that the 400 or so families who remain in his congregation are “people of deep hope and immense faith.” Describing how he has received numerous death threats during his ministry, he said, “I trust in God, the Chaldean people continue to trust in God — our faith is deeply rooted, we have been here for almost 2,000 years. That’s a long time.

“We have only the Spirit of Jesus with us. We have a strong faith; people lose everything but they stay Christian, thank God for that,” he said.

20 December 2017
Greg Kandra

People carry Christmas trees, handed out annually by the Jerusalem municipality, in Jerusalem’s
Old City. (photo: CNS/Amir Cohen, Reuters)

20 December 2017
Greg Kandra

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, shown here in an image from 2016, says the status of Jerusalem should not be affected by “unilateral decisions.” (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)

Archbishop: Israelis, Palestinians must agree before Jerusalem changes (CNS) The status quo of Jerusalem should remain as is until an agreement about the holy city is reached by Palestinians and Israelis, said Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. “The status quo affects the fragile life between the different communities. (It) should be changed only through dialogue,” he told journalists at the Latin Patriarchate on 20 December...

Six killed during protests in Iraqi Kurdistan (CNN) At least six people were killed and more than 70 injured Tuesday as anti-government protests erupted for a second straight day, said a provincial health director in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region...

Report: More than 9,000 killed in battle for Mosul (AP) Between 9,000 and 11,000 people were killed in the nine-month battle to recapture the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIS), an Associated Press (AP) investigation has found. The civilian casualty rate is nearly 10 times higher than that previously reported...

The German priest who celebrates Christmas in Jerusalem with Jews ( When Father Nikodemus opens the gate of his church on Mount Zion this Sunday, a huge line of people will be waiting for midnight mass. But it won’t be pilgrims approaching him then. “It’s a strange evening,” says Nikodemus, laughing. “I guess I’m the only priest in the world who celebrates Christmas with an almost entirely Jewish audience.” Ninety-five percent of the 1,000-plus visitors on this special night are Jewish Israelis, he estimates...

A Syrian Santa in Jordan (Huffington Post) It wasn’t long before Christmas in Amman, Jordan. I’d just overheard a stranger talking about a Muslim, Syrian refugee working as a Santa Claus actor in a mall on the outskirts of town. Using some creepy internet magic, I identified the mall and got in contact with him. He invited me to come and say hello. Two hours of arguing with security guards later, and I managed to secure a ten minute interview...

19 December 2017
Greg Kandra

Britain’s Prince Charles greets clergymen after attending a prayer service led by the Melkite Catholic community on 19 December at St. Barnabas Church in London. During the service, Prince Charles described the “barbaric persecution” of Christians as “even more perverse and dreadful” given the Quran’s spirit of reverence toward Jesus and Mary. (photo: CNS/Toby Melville, Reuters)

The Prince of Wales made some pointed remarks today during a visit to a Melkite church in London.

From The Tablet:

The Prince of Wales has described his profoundly shocked at the suffering endured by Catholics in Syria.

Addressing the Melkite Greek Catholic Community in London, along with their hosts from the Anglican Parish of St Barnabas in Pimlico, and friends from other churches, he said it was “a particular privilege” to be able to celebrate the birth of Christ with a community that traces its origins to the very earliest Christian communities in the Holy Land.

“As someone who, throughout my life, has tried, in whatever small way I can, to foster understanding between people of faith, and to build bridges between the great religions of the world, it is heartbreaking beyond words to see just how much pain and suffering is being endured by Christians, in this day and age, simply because of their faith,” he said.

“As Christians we remember, of course, how Our Lord called upon us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute. But for those confronted with such hatred and oppression, I can only begin to imagine how incredibly hard it must be to follow Christ’s example.”

Read more.

Tags: Syria Middle East Christians

19 December 2017
Greg Kandra

Pope Francis greets Jordan’s King Abdullah II during a private meeting on 19 December at the Vatican. (photo: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano)

Pope receives King Abdullah of Jordan in audience (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis on Tuesday received King Abdullah II of Jordan in an audience at the Vatican. In a communiqué following the audience, the Holy See Press Office said the “cordial conversations focused above all on the theme of the promotion of peace and stability in the Mideast, with particular reference to the question of Jerusalem and the role of the Hashemite Sovereign as Custodian of the Holy Places…”

AP: Iraqi patriarch looks to life after ISIS (AP) As Iraq emerges from more than three years of war with the Islamic State group, battling an extremist “mentality” will be the key to peaceful coexistence among the country’s religious and ethnic groups, says a top Chaldean Catholic Church official…

Syria’s internally displaced in dire need of aid (Al Monitor) Displaced persons from various Syrian cities currently living in Aleppo’s northern countryside camps, especially in the vicinity of Azaz, are trying to survive the winter under the difficult humanitarian situation. There is no heating in these camps, as local and international humanitarian organizations are reluctant to provide assistance to displaced people in unorganized camps along the Syrian-Turkish border…

Israeli ambassador rededicates synagogues in India (The Jerusalem Post) Israeli Ambassador to India Daniel Carmon rededicated two of Kolkata’s oldest synagogues on Sunday after they were recently restored. “Remembering and preserving the glorious past of Jewish Kolkata, contributing to the fabric of the city of Kolkata in the present and looking at the future, two synagogues were rededicated today — in the most festive atmosphere of Hanukkah,” he wrote on Twitter…

Nativity message of Metropolitan Tikhon ( As we come to the end of the year, we reflect back on a period in which tragedy, acts of terrorism, shootings in public spaces, political confusion and sexual misconduct allegations dominate the news. The darkness which enshrouds the world adds to the burden of our personal and family struggles…

Tags: Syria India Iraq Pope Francis Jordan

18 December 2017
Greg Kandra

Women gather inside Sts. Peter and Paul the Apostles Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church in Kosmach, Ukraine, during the Christmas liturgy. (photo: Petro Didula)

With Christmas fast approaching, we were reminded of a report from Ukraine in 2004 which gave readers a wintry glimpse of life in the Carpathian Mountains:

“The Christian faith in the area is nuanced,” says Father Vasylii Hunchak, pastor of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox parish of Sts. Peter and Paul in Kosmach. “There is faith, but it is not exactly Christian, rather half-Christian, half-pagan ... a mystical faith. In the Carpathian Mountains, there are people who know about trees, plants, nature.” The Hutsuls are intimately connected to nature, the elements and to their dead.

“Before Christmas Eve supper, people visit cemeteries,” says longtime resident Mykhailo Didushytskyi. “They put candles on the graves of their relatives and invite them to come for supper. A place is then left at the table, with plate and utensils for a deceased relative, to show respect for the dead.”

Timing is important.

“When the cattle are fed and the first star appears, we sit down at the table, light candles and pray,” Mr. Didushytskyi continues. “The eldest takes the kuttia [porridge made of wheat, honey, nuts and poppy seeds] and throws it on the ceiling with a spoon.” If the porridge sticks, this means God has blessed the family with health, cattle and fertile fields. Caroling remains an important Christmas tradition. “According to legend, God gave gifts to all the countries,” says Father Hunchak, “Ukraine came late and God had nothing left to give except songs. Our Christmas carols are simply gifts from God.”

On Christmas Eve, grandchildren carol for their grandparents. On Christmas Day, older children carol. After that, however, only adult men who have permission from their pastors may carol. Proceeds from the singing — carolers receive “tips” — are donated to the parish.

Read more about Faith and Tradition in the November 2004 edition of ONE.

18 December 2017
Greg Kandra

In the video above, children gather on Sunday to celebrate Pope Francis’s 81st birthday at the Vatican. (video: Rome Reports/YouTube)

Indian leader praises Christian contributions to country (Vatican Radio) India’s Vice President has commended the nation’s Christians for their service to the marginalized and for contributing to building a new India. “The Catholic community is peace-loving and it contributes immensely to nation building,” Vice President Venkaiah Naidu told a pre-Christmas gathering that the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) organized on 12 December in the capital, New Delhi...

In Jordan, Iraqi Christians dream of fresh start abroad (The Jordan Times) Some 10,000 Iraqi Christian refugees live in Jordan, according to Father Rifaat Badr, who heads a Catholic research centre. Many of them dream of new lives in Europe, Canada, Australia or in the United States. The church’s priest, Khalil Jaar, believes education is also key to the children remembering where they come from. “The saying goes, “If you want to destroy a people, erase their history and make their children ignorant’,” he said. “We need to work to ensure all these children are given their right to education and to life...”

Syrian refugees improve Armenia’s ‘social fabric’ (Al Jazeera) The presence of Syrian refugees in Armenia’s mono-ethnic society has been celebrated in the capital Yerevan through the personal initiative of an art curator and three photographers who have been documenting the migration since the eruption of the war in Syria in 2011. A documentary photo exhibition that opened on Friday was called Home to Home, to highlight the fact that the 20,000 new arrivals were descendants of Armenians who fled from Turkey to Syria during another war more than 100 years ago...

Kerala likely to get a holy tourism circuit (Hindustan Times) A group of pilgrims from Goa kneel before the tomb of St Alphonsa in Kerala’s Kottayam. After prayers, a priest guides them through the sprawling church complex, packed with pilgrims from across the country. The 20th century religious figure, who became the first woman of Indian origin to be canonized in 2008, is one of three Christian figures who are fast becoming a big draw in the state...

A tiny ‘powerhouse of prayer’ in Alaska ( The Rev. Steven McGuigan was installed in his position as the rector of St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in August. He’s the first full-time priest the church has had in about seven years. The St. Nicholas parish had previously been served by a patchwork of deacons and priests with other duties. Most recently, Father David Alexander, a U.S. Coast Guard chaplain, served as the “attached priest” at St. Nicholas for about a year...

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