Christmas in Iraq—What Does Hope Look Like?

  • Written by:

by Fr. David Linder
The following is an adaptation of the homily at our Christmas Vigil Mass last year. Thousands of Christians in Iraq and other countries continue to suffer and work under the conditions described in this article.
Three days ago I was reading one of the Catholic newspapers we receive, the National Catholic Register, and one of the articles highlighted the Christians who were preparing to celebrate Christmas in Qaraqosh in Iraq.*

There was a photo of their burned church, and someone posted it on our bulletin board.

Just reading that article stirred me to read a few things online about this Christian city that was so devastated by ISIS.

Qaraqosh was once the biggest Christian town in Iraq, with a population of over 50,000 people—until that scorching hot day in August 2014, when its inhabitants were forced to flee from the advancing forces of ISIS. Of those who left, an estimated third have returned.

Thousands of the homes people lived in were devastated. Ten percent were obliterated by air strikes. Forty percent were only burned out, and the remainder were looted by ISIS and just left to decay.

This is the devastation these people have come back to and are coming back to. This city was liberated a year ago, and in the previous ten months people have been returning and are slowly rebuilding, a process that will probably take years.

The people have lost so much, some of them, everything, and they cannot rebuild without outside financial help.

That help is coming from various Catholic charities, including Aid to the Church in Need, the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, and Catholic Relief Services. Some of that money comes from right here in Canada, and we at Madonna House have contributed to it.

Even after those months of rebuilding, there are still ruins everywhere. There is no potable water and what electricity they have is coming from generators. Currently, the article said, there is a campaign on by the Church there to invite people back, to encourage them to return to their homes, although many have already immigrated overseas.

So in light of that article, I asked myself this question: What does hope look like in Qaraqosh? What does hope look like there?

Iraq is ahead of us in time, and right now in Qaraqosh, it is eight in the morning. Last night was their first celebration of Christmas in that church in three years.

In the days leading up to the feast, the marketers had a lot of Christmas decorations for sale and people were buying them. There was a quote in another article by the father of a family who had just purchased a lot of decorations for his own home. He said, “Outside there is nothing, so you have to make your house special.”

The town marked Christmas Eve with large bonfires followed by Midnight Mass. The youth in the parish had made a beautiful Nativity grotto and set up an outdoor Christmas tree. They celebrated Mass in that burned-out church.

One member of the church said in an interview, “From this church we will leave the message: life goes on after death.”

The liturgy was followed just hours ago by dancing on the streets, music, gift-giving, and as is the custom in the Syrian Church, the day after Christmas people will gather at cemeteries to pray for their deceased, a custom that reminds them of hope and the resurrection.

This is what hope looks like in Qaraqosh. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light (Isaiah 9:2).

When I read these articles, it penetrated into me, and my reaction really surprised me. I didn’t shout it out loud, but inside my heart was shouting: I have to celebrate with these people!

Now I know that the Lord was trying to awaken hope in me, not as sympathy, but as solidarity, as communion in Christ with these people.

Most of us, when we think of the kind of devastation suffered by these people, find it beautiful that they have hope in the midst of it all. However, that devastation seems so far away from us.

And we think: isn’t it wonderful that we don’t have to live with that kind of physical devastation and the fear that it might even happen again.

But devastation is not a stranger to our land or probably to any land. We just experience a different kind of devastation.

Here at Madonna House, when we look out our windows, we don’t see ruins; we see beautiful trees and snow. We see beauty and calm and order. Yet we can have a devastation of the heart. Wounds so deep in us that no salve will ever reach them. Bondages so strong that only the Lord can free us. Souls so enmeshed in difficulties that untangling them seems unimaginable.

Then there is the cultural devastation, such as the absence of Christ in the festive season named after him. We get so used to it that we don’t think about it anymore.

Last week I was sitting in a dentist’s chair listening to the piped-in music. It was CBC and they were just going through their Christmas roster, one song after another. Not a single song even mentioned Jesus Christ; not a single song gave him honor.

Oh, I listened to many talented crooners singing things like “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” Devastation! Not bullet-ridden walls, pitted roads, soot-filled rooms, rubble everywhere, but the devastation of the loss of Christ.

I want to shout: Then I must celebrate for them, too! And I think that’s part of our celebration tonight. We are celebrating with our brothers and sisters all over the world who are in very difficult situations, but we are also celebrating for those who have nothing to celebrate in their own hearts spiritually, or who aren’t aware of God at all.

Today, a Saviour is born for us, Christ the Lord.!

How can Christians in Qaraqosh have hope? How can we have hope-filled lives when we look at the devastation in our own culture?

There is really one answer, the source of all hope, and you know His name. It’s Jesus.

All the readings tonight proclaim a message so great that they give birth to hope. Today a Savior is born for us, Christ the Lord (cf. Lk 2:11). This message engenders a joy that can only be found in this Child.

Isaiah in the first reading proclaimed that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light (Isaiah 9:2). It is on them that a light has shone.

This is a cause, according to Isaiah, for joy, for exultation. Then he goes on to give two causes for celebration here, why joy would be breaking forth.

The first one is that the yoke has been lifted, the bar of oppression removed as on the day of Midian. This is a reference to the story of Gideon in the Book of Judges.

Gideon is going into battle with 22,000 men. Then it gets whittled down to 10,000, and then to 300. And they are facing a vast army! Yet God wins the victory.

God says at the 10,000 marker: Hey, if you go in with 10,000 men you’ll think, well, we did it, didn’t we? So he took Gideon into battle with 300 so that everyone could say that only in God could this victory have happened.

So on this night we can say: only in God will this victory, will this oppression, will this darkness be lifted or this sin be crushed. Only in this Child, only on this night.

The second cause for joy and exultation is what it says in the Scripture, that all the footgear of battle and every cloak soaked in blood will be consumed in fire. I can’t imagine how an Iraqi Christian would hear those words, I really can’t.

In this Child an eternal peace will one day break forth and every tear will be wiped away (Rev 21:4).

There is also a third reason for joy and exultation. Luke says, Today is born for you in the City of David a Saviour. He is Christ, the Lord (2:11)!

Let us welcome him. Let us encounter him, let us celebrate him even in the midst of any type of devastation. More than anything else, let us adore him and as we do, he will fill us with joy. And from that joy, hope will be born in the hearts of many.

Oh come, let us adore him. Oh come, let us adore him. O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

* “Christians Ready for Christmas After the Caliphate’s Collapse,” by Peter Jesserer Smith, National Catholic Register, December 22, 2017.

Update: As the Christians of Qaraqosh continue to rebuild, they are now receiving more aid. In 2018, USAID gave ten million dollars and a pledge of twenty-five million more to rebuild the homes of Christians and Yazadis in the parts of Iraq devastated by ISIS.

Christmas in Iraq—What Does Hope Look Like? by Fr. David Linder