Date: December 23, 2011
Christmas has been canceled in Kirkuk, Iraq. Perhaps one of the places on Earth that is most in need of a chance to celebrate the birth of our Savior. A place where Jesus is needed most. In this tiny northern city, 68 Christians were massacred as they gathered for Sunday mass. The homes of dozens of local Christians have been targeted by terrorist cells, sending them fleeing the city and the country. In the wake of this attack the northern city of Mosul and the southern city of Basra have also announced their intentions not to display Christmas decorations or hold any public religious services.
To say that Iraqis are fortunate seems absurd, until you consider that in contrast, North Koreans have never had a Christmas to cancel in more than half a century. From the streets of Pyongyang to the tiny villages of Chaeryong the simple act of owning a Christian bible can land you in a Prison Camp or on the other end of an executioner’s rifle. As you read this, an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 Christian are being “detained” in North Korean prison camps subjected to torture, starvation, illness, forced labor and death. Their families know the sad truth that the rest of the world does not – that regardless of religion, the vast majority of men, women and children who enter these camps will never leave alive.
Inside these North Korean Prison Camps, Christians are separated from the rest of the population. Their executions take place in solitude. Their lives are lived away from the eyes of those outside of their faith. Camp officials have found that the Grace and Peace with which these persecuted Christians endure their captivity, go about their difficult lives and face death becomes a Witness to those around them. Rather than serving as a cautionary tale, these Christian Martyrs become a catalyst for conversion among those around them simply by the Power of their lives.
When we think of Christian Martyrs we think of ancient Rome in the time of Nero or Jerusalem in the time of Pliny and Pilate. We think of St. Peter’s crucifixion in Rome. We think of St. Perpetua valiantly and peacefully going to her death in a Roman Coliseum rather than renounce her Christian faith even as her father and the emperor, who sentenced her, begged the new mother to do so, because as she said “I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.”
But, the days of Martyrdom are far from past. Blood is still being spilt. To profess your Christian faith is still a death sentence in some parts of the world. Yet, men and women of all races, classes, nationalities, backgrounds, educations, and languages still stand united as Children of God and say in one voice, “I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.”
As Christmas draws near and we gathering in our respective churches, it is important to remember that this is a privileged that has been purchased with the lives of millions of Martyrs. As we hurriedly buy that last minute gift, struggle to get the presents wrapped by Christmas morning and endure the holiday visit from our in-laws, it is important to remember that this is a Celebration. It is a Celebration of the most significant event in human history. It is a Celebration that is meant to be shared, because Peace on Earth is not a gift that can be given to only half of the human race. It is a celebration that we as Christians are called to Live, not on ONE day but on ALL days.
So I shall not be irritated by the sleeting rain, or the crowded parking lots, or the annoying relatives, or the tree that isn’t perfect or the recipe that burns. I shall joyously and humbly step into this Celebration that is a Gift from God. I shall do so with the knowledge that my Christmas gift is 2,000 years old and more precious than any diamond or gem. I shall do so in the name and in the shadow of those who have purchased for me the privilege to Celebrate this gift openly and freely. I shall do so with a prayerful mind and a reverent heart and in humble honor of the millions of Brothers and Sisters who are denied this privilege. I shall do so because I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.