Christmas Message 2010 – The Rt. Rev. Dr. Munib Younan, Bishop of the ELCJHL

We wish you a Peaceful Merry Christmas and A Blessed New Year 2011 full of a just peace, forgiveness and reconciliation. Yours in Christ, The Rt. Rev. Dr. Munib A. Younan

"Fear Not!"

When we think of the Christmas story, the most common words that come to mind are peace, joy, hope, faith, and love. Christmas is a pleasant time when families come together, when choirs sing, and when children are filled with fantasies. Yet the first two words of Christmas are “Fear not!”

"In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, "Fear not! for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” –Luke 2:8-11

It was the same when the angel appeared to the aged priest Zechariah at the temple: “Fear not!”

And when Gabriel appeared to the young girl Mary in Nazareth: “Fear not!”

And when Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant and an angel appeared to him in a dream: “Fear not!”

In first century Palestine, there were so many reasons for them to be afraid:

  • For Zechariah, the impotency of old age and the potential loss of mental and physical abilities.
  • For Mary, a young vulnerable girl, pregnant outside of marriage in a patriarchal society.
  • For Joseph, the pressures of leading an upstanding and righteous life with religious zealots judging him on the basis of Mary’s pregnancy.
  • For the shepherds, the threat of the natural world with wild animals about to attack their flocks during the darkness of night and the lawlessness of thieves and bandits who would not be afraid of using violence on them for material gain.
  • For all of them, questions about God’s presence in their lives when God seemed so very far away.

And yet, “Fear not!” was the message of the angel to all of them. And it was not the terrifying, life-destroying, bad news they might have expected. It was good news of great joy for each one of them and for all people. “Fear not! For I bring you good news of great joy!”

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” –John 3:16

For Zechariah, for Mary, for Joseph, for the shepherds, the message was very simple, “God has not forgotten you. God is not far away or removed from your lives. God hears your cries of loneliness, inadequacy, uncertainty, doubt and fear about who you are, what is your purpose in life, how you fit in with your relationships to others, your relationship to this vast universe, and most of all your relationship to God—to God who comes in the form of a child born in a humble manger, among common people like you, on a still silent night, in a small village like Bethlehem. This is good news of great joy. God loves you. Fear Not!”

In the first epistle of John, we are told “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). And so the first word of Christmas must be that spoken by the angels, “Fear not!” It is the first, the middle, and the last word of Christmas. “Fear not!” Here in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and into the whole world, “Fear not!” Then, 2,000 years ago, and today at Christmas 2010, “Fear not!”

There are many issues today that cause us to fear: health problems like cancer and diseases like HIV/ AIDS, economic issues like job loss and decreasing funds for retirement, family issues like divorce or the death of a spouse, environmental issues like global warming and disappearing natural resources, international tensions and the development of more destructive weaponry, extremism in politics and religion. Once again we need a Christmas angel proclaiming, “Fear not!”

Yes, here at Christmas time 2010 in the Middle East, we once again long for a heavenly angel to comfort us with these words, “Fear not!”

Our people are in danger of drowning in fear. Many Christians in many parts of the Middle East are increasingly cowering in fear and becoming timid in their witness. Just a little over a month ago in Baghdad at Our Lady of Salvation Church terrorists gunned down two priests and fifty-one defenseless worshippers. Since then, another three were killed in Mosul and an elderly Christian couple were murdered in their own home in Baghdad. So how do Christians respond? In an Associated Press story, one woman, afraid to give her name, said she lives in a constant state of fear, keeping her children indoors and out of school. In less than fifteen years, the number of Christians in Iraq has declined from one and a quarter million to only 400,000. For centuries Christians and Muslims have lived side by side, yet today religious extremists are holding hostage the moderate majority, Christian and Muslim alike. Iraqi Christians are once again in need of a Christmas angel proclaiming “Fear not!”

A similar picture is developing in Egypt where Coptic Christians have fresh in their memories the drive-by shooting that left six Christians dead in Nag Hammadi as they were leaving church after last year’s Christmas Eve Mass. As we approach another Christmas season, there are heightened tensions in Egypt. We ask both sides—Christians and Muslims alike—to dialogue concerning their differences for the sake of their long-standing relationship. We announce to them from Jerusalem, “We are praying for you.” And we say, “Fear not!”

These and other situations have resulted in the U.S. State Department “International Religious Freedom Report” for 2010 reminding us that: “The right to believe or not to believe, without fear of government interference or restriction, is a basic human right.” To believe without fear—to worship without fear—is a fundamental human right. Yet, because of extremism, people are afraid.

These and other situations were the reason that the Vatican recently held its Synod on the Middle East to:

  • “confirm and strengthen Christians in their identity through the Word of God and the Sacraments.
  • And to give new life. . . so that they might provide an authentic witness of joyful and attractive Christian life.”

I hope that the World Council of Churches will hold a similar conference so that we Christians of the Middle East will have a coordinated strategy and be strengthened in the process.

Here in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, including Jordan, we are not facing the same problems of persecution as our sisters and brothers in many countries of the Middle East. There may be social and political problems, but we thank God for the religious freedom we enjoy. Here Christians today number only 1.4 % of the population with many Arab Christians emigrating because of the political situation and the lack of willingness and resolve to bring about a just peace, because of lack of jobs, because of lack of housing, because of the difficulty of travel, and because of the rise of extremism on both sides.

Palestinians and Israelis today face a common enemy: fear. In the absence of justice and peace, the common denominator is fear. Fear of the other. Fear for the future. Fear that freedom is not coming. Fear that children will grow in hatred. Fear of insecurity. Fear of the occupation. Fear is our common prison that keeps us locked up in cycles of mistrust and shattered dreams. It is a fear that builds non-productive “facts on the ground”. It is a fear that will only ever vanish when there is peace based on justice and reconciliation built on forgiveness. We proclaim that such a just peace is possible today. We pray that all political leaders will seize the opportunity before it is too late. The same message of the first Christmas rings true today, “Fear not!” There is a child who was born into a world of fear in order to take away that fear and to bring peace to earth and good will to humankind.

The Christmas message must speak loud and clear once again, “Fear not!” We are in need of a heavenly angel, a messenger of God, who says, “Do not be afraid.” “Fear not, Zechariah. Fear not, Joseph. Fear not, Mary. Fear not, shepherds. Fear not, Palestinian Christians. Fear not, Arab Christians. God hears you. God loves you. God empowers you. God calls you to be a vibrant and living witness in this place at this critical time in history.”

When the angels appeared to the Beit Sahour shepherds, the promise of good news overshadowed all their fears. The announcement of God’s love for them and the world cast out all the fear that might have prevented them from traveling to Bethlehem amidst the crowds and the Roman soldiers on that first Christmas night.

The announcement of God’s love for them brought them to the manger where they bowed in humble worship to the long-promised Christ-child, where they prayed, where they uttered songs of thanksgiving, where they were fed spiritually and strengthened in order to return to their normal, mundane, and sometimes exhausting tasks of daily life. Luke describes this return in such encouraging words, “The Shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”

For the shepherds, the dangers were still there. The threats of violence were still very real and no different than before. The demands of making a living, of supporting their families, and sharing with their neighbors and communities, none of that was different from the day before. In many ways, their lives had not changed, but their spirits had. They went about their daily tasks glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. From the beginning of those two small words—“Fear not!”—the shepherds were called to witness, and sent out, unafraid, to share the good news with those around them.

Likely their home communities, their friends, and even their families met them with some reluctance, perhaps with skepticism and doubt. Those around them were still living in fear. I wonder how the shepherds began their stories about that first Christmas night? Most likely it was with those same two words, “Fear not!” And their witness would have provided a contagion that changed families, transformed communities, and encouraged others no longer to live in fear, but to share in that vibrant witness of the hope that came to Bethlehem in the child born in a manger.

Our task as a church is to be the salt of society, the leaven of the dough. Our task today is to provide education. It is also our task to provide our society with educated individuals who promote the values of human rights, freedom of religion and democracy. Our task is to train leaders who will become teachers, lawyers, and professionals who will contribute to the well being of society. Our task is to provide a witness of non-violent struggle against injustice, to promote religious toleration, to provide a model of peoples of different religious and ethnic backgrounds learning to see God in the other and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We can no longer be timid or afraid about our witness to the world. At this time of hopelessness, it is essential that we Christians develop a theology of witness and coexistence focusing on the reasons that the babe of the manger calls us—like the shepherds of old—to witness here in the Holy Land.

Today Christians in the Middle East are just a small minority, living in a world filled with danger and filled with what must seem to be insurmountable challenges. And so it was with those first shepherds of Beit Sahour, only three or four of them, perhaps one or two still children, all uneducated and untrained in speech. I could understand if they had been timid in telling the story. But Luke tells us they went home glorifying and praising God. And I could understand if today’s Christian community remained timid about its witness. But then I hear again those first two little words of the Christmas message:

“Fear not!”

The angels call to us from the first Christmas.

“Fear not!”