Christmas in Aleppo

Nativity of Our Lord I
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Isaiah 9:2-7
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

On July 19, 2012, the Battle of Aleppo began. A part of the Syrian Civil War that has raged since 2011, it was a four year long battle between government and rebel forces.

While punctuated by long periods of stalemate, the four year battle is one of the longest sieges in the history of modern warfare. The International Committee of the Red Cross has described the fighting and the battle as one of the most devastating conflicts in modern times. The Violations Documentation Center in Syria estimates that over the course of the four year seige, 31,114 people died, accounting for almost a tenth of the total deaths in the Syrian Civil War. Of those 31,114 people, 23,604 of them were civilians—76%–caught in the crossfire, the indiscriminate bombings and shellings, and chemical warfare.

Aleppo has been in the news more often as of late, though not nearly enough. Though the battle has been fought for four years, even a few months ago, presidential candidates could barely talk about what was going on with any sense of certainty or knowledge. The fighting intensified over the last few months, and just a few weeks ago, the government forces began their final deadly push to retake the city, or what remained of it. That final offense was enough to make the news and remind the international community that Aleppo still existed.

One voice out of Aleppo that gained a following was the voice of 7-year old Bana Alabed. Bana’s mother, Fatemah, opened a Twitter account for her and her daughter. Fatemah posts the tweets, but many are videos of Bana herself talking about what’s happening around her. Some of her tweets include:

“Please save us now.”

“My dad is injured now. I am crying.”

“I escaped from east Aleppo.”

Fatemah’s tweets include more information, such as:

“Share this message to whole world. Aleppo ceasefire broke, civilians are in danger. I beg world u do something now to get us out.”

“Under attack. Nowhere to go, every minute feels like death.”

“Our new house is hit with a rocket. This is the worst bombing I have ever seen. We are already convinced we will die.”

“Constantly checking if all those who wanted to leave left East Aleppo. Heard last convoy is about to leave, let’s welcome them.”

Bana and her family did escape the city, and have tried to make sure that the message of refugees fleeing for their lives gets heard.

There are many more voices coming out of Aleppo, voices like Bana’s, giving expression to the pain and terror the people of Aleppo have lived under for four years; but there are other voices, too.

A Jesuit priest, Father Ziad Hilal, representing Aid to the Church in Need in Syria, spoke of the upcoming celebration of Christmas in the city.

Of the 120,000 Christians who lived in the city before the war, only about 30,000 now remain. The rest were either killed or fled with the Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters to escape the war—bombs and air strikes don’t care what religion one is, they hit everybody. Many of the churches in the city have long since been destroyed.

But, Father Hilal says, “Christmas brings the hope for peace that we have missed for the last five years… Christians are preparing themselves for Christmas in their churches and associations, along with our compatriots in Syria, so that the sound of violence [is overcome by] the deep sound of faith that each believer enjoys—God is with us. EMANUELE.”

It may seem strange that Christians in Aleppo will be celebrating Christmas. I can’t imagine trying to celebrate anything, even the coming of Christ into the world, when my home has been bombed to rubble, a city crumbling to dust around me, bombs falling day and night, friends and neighbors dying every day. Here in America, Christmas on the whole will be celebrated as a happy, joyous time, full of laughter, big meals, get-togethers, presents, the works. How can such a celebration be translated into the context of Aleppo, where for four years, there’s been nothing but pain and death?

It’s a funny thing, this Christmas, though. It’s a funny thing, this faith we have, actually. Contrary to what everyone else expects and says should happen, something about this message, this story, this promise of God made manifest in the Christmas story and in the story of Jesus Christ speaks to people who live in places like Aleppo, Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Berlin, Yemen.

There’s something about the promises of God that spoke to Isaiah’s audience, the exiles of the kingdom of Judah now living in Babylon, displaced refugees wondering if they’d ever be able to return to their war-torn homes and rebuild. There’s something about it that has spoken to 2000 years of Christians, our ancestors in the faith, and has kept them going.

Indeed, whatever this thing is, it must be remarkable, for it’s survived violent persecution by the Romans in the early centuries of the church, the massacre of Christians by the Persian empire, by the people of Yemen, the 7th century Islamic conquests, the French Revolution, banning by the Chinese and India, the Nazis, the Soviet Union.

It’s spoken some sort of truth to those living in fear of retaliation for their heritage, nationality, race and ethnicity. It’s provided hope for those cast out of their homes and forced to live on the streets because of their gender or sexuality. It’s filled the lungs of those living well below the poverty line with songs of praise. It’s prompted people huddled in their houses as bombs rained down around them to proclaim, “I know that my redeemer lives.” And yes, it’s given enough hope to the people of Aleppo that they can dare defy the horrific circumstances of their lives to celebrate Christmas.

And all I can think is this: the story of Christmas, the story of God’s interaction with the world God created, the message of hope that speaks to people living in circumstances most of us can only imagine, is this:

God has not abandoned you. And even more! Even when everything else is taken away—home, possessions, family, friends, health, even life itself—even when it’s all gone, reduced to rubble, God has not abandoned you.

On the contrary, not only has God not abandoned you, but quite the opposite: God is fully and authentically present with you. Nowhere was this more true than in the birth and life of Jesus Christ. For in the celebration of the Incarnation, God-with-us, we recognize and proclaim that God was physically with us in Jesus Christ. We could touch him. We could hear his voice with our ears. We could see his body with our own eyes. His coming into the world wasn’t just a message to the people of his own time and place. It was a message to all of us who, throughout our lives, are faced with a world that at times feels like it’s throwing us aside and abandoning us, a message that says, “But I, the LORD your God, have not abandoned you.”

It was a message I needed to hear on Tuesday, as I sat at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church’s Blue Christmas prayer service with others who have experienced loss and for whom Christmas might be painful; and a message I needed to hear later that night, when Debbie and I gathered with Pastor Andrea and Father Geoff to formally name the baby we had lost, and to remember Taylor Ranos.

It’s a message that speaks as much to us today as it did to two scared, unwed parents 2000 years ago looking for shelter for the night in Bethlehem, and to the community of Judeans in exile wondering if they would ever go home.

The true miracle of Christmas was really no miracle at all, as we’d usually  use the term, but rather, was the culmination of God’s message that we still matter, and always have. It could be no other way! It was the ultimate sign of God’s promise that this world, with all of its deep, deep flaws, has not been abandoned; that not only is God interested in what happens here, but God is actively engaged with it, especially with those who need God’s hope the most, those who have a tough time imagining that God could ever notice their pain.

And you know what? That’s okay. It is in these moments, on this night most of all, that we remember that God is with us in solidarity with and on behalf of those who can’t feel God’s presence with them. We loudly proclaim that God doesn’t abandon any of us. That hard times are not signs of God’s disfavor or displeasure—rather, they are the perfect times for God to be present more than ever.

The child in the manger, which we celebrate tonight, grows up. Lives through oppression. Is subjected to a broken justice system, torture, and execution.

And in doing so, breaks the hold of darkness through the resurrection. Christmas inevitably leads to the cross, and to the empty tomb. It is a dark night, but a night from which springs hope—even in places like Aleppo.

Tonight, we will light candles, tiny lights in the darkness, as symbols of that eternal Christian hope. In the quiet, silent night, we affirm our faith in God, who does not abandon, who does not lose, us. Tonight is the night before Christ’s birth. Even as we mourn, even as we worry; let us, through God, be glad in it.

Featured Image: “Christmas Eve, Greek Orthodox Church, Al Jdeideh, Aleppo, Syria” by manastir2014 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


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