For the life of the world

holy communion 01One of my favorite reporters covering the Iraq War is the New York TimesDamien Cave. One of his two stories for today’s paper is about a Christmas service in Baghdad. Cave skillfully packs details into his account of the festival service:

Inside the beige church guarded by the men with the AK-47s, a choir sang Christmas songs in Arabic. An old woman in black closed her eyes while a girl in a cherry-red dress, with tights and shoes to match, craned her neck toward rows of empty pews near the back.

“Last year it was full,” said Yusef Hanna, a parishioner. “So many people have left — gone up north, or out of the country.”

Sacred Heart Church is not Iraq’s largest or most beleaguered Christian congregation. It is as ordinary as its steeple is squat, in one of Baghdad’s safest neighborhoods, with a small school next door.

But the congregation faces struggles, Cave explains. Christians have been persecuted in the post-Saddam Iraq and as many as one million Christians have fled. Sacred Heart’s services were attended by 120 people as compared to 400 two years ago.

It’s not that the persecution of Iraqi Christians hasn’t been covered by the media but it hasn’t been covered enough. Cave spends the bulk of the story describing the service:

The service began with traditional hymns. Some songs were sung in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. It was a reminder of the 2,000-year-old history of Iraq’s largest Christian group, the Chaldeans, an Eastern Rite church affiliated with Roman Catholicism.

Initially the sermon seemed equally traditional, beginning as many do with phrases like “This day is not like other days.”

Yet the priest, the Rev. Thaer al-Sheik, soon turned to more local themes. He talked about the psychological impact of violence, kidnapping and a lack of work. He condemned hate. He denounced revenge.

“We must practice being humane to each other,” he said. “Living as a Christian today is difficult.”

In the interactive service, the Iraqi Christians respond to the priest’s sermon question about what they would do if Jesus Christ was reborn today. They say they would ask him for forgiveness or peace. Father Sheik tells them they should first thank God for giving them the Christ:

Communion followed. A stream of people — the choir’s keyboardist, a woman in black with eyes pink from crying through the service, an attractive young woman in thick makeup — came forward. They moved slowly down the center aisle, stepping onto what appeared to be Persian rugs, a few feet from an artificial Christmas tree in the corner with flashing red and green lights.

At my Christmas service this morning, the pastor’s sermon focused on Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John:

“I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.”

Hearing the Gospel and the sermon and reading this story of Christians in Iraq reminded me that this sacrament of Holy Communion — which is the life of so much of the church — is sorely neglected in most accounts of Christian life. I love that the twin angles of Cave’s story — like those of the Christians in Baghdad — were the sermon and the sacrament. So much better than the usual “What Christmas means” tropes we get in most papers today.

Another note — a report from Iraq, by the Associated Press’ Elena Becatoros, says that Christians there are flooding churches in numbers unthinkable last year.

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  • Julia

    I’m so glad the reporter mentioned the Chaldeans’ connection to Rome.

    Another article I read today about Bethlehem said there were a small number of Christians in the West Bank and Gaza and of those only a tiny number are Roman Catholic. doh ! The “Roman Catholics” in Israel, the West Bank & Gaza are all from the Western or Latin Rite of the Catholic Church – in other words they are almost all European or S. & N. Americans. The bulk of them are probably working at various institutes or are Franciscans who have care of many of the Christian sites in the Jerusalem area.

    The Eastern Rite churches are as Catholic and connected to Rome as the Western Rite folks in Europe, but they are not so-called “Roman” Catholics. It was the regular AP feed, I think. You would think the writer would know better. Not all Eastern Christian churches are Orthodox connected to Istanbul or Greek or Russia; many of them are in communion with the Pope in Rome, but are not “Roman”.

    By the way, there was a Chaldean choir singing in Aramaic at Pope Benedict’s Mass for the locals in Istanbul last year. There were also many of them present for his Mass near Ephesus. They were mostly refugees from the fighting in Iraq and are hopefully now returning.

  • Jerry

    Mollie, your main story and the one you referred to at the end are a bit confusing. I’m trying to put them together to get a more complete picture. Your main story is about how decrease in attendance but your other story is about a remarkable resurgance of Christians in Iraq. It sounds like this year was better than last but still much worse than two years ago. Is that the way you (and others) read it?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Julia’s comment is on the mark. Few reporters get right the relationship between the 20-30 million member Eastern Catholic Churches and Rome. (and I, like most other Latin Catholics, have a hard time explaining it correctly so it is understandable reporters rarely get it right).
    The Catholic Church is really a family of Churches, each with their own organizational patterns and Rites. But all are in full communion with the pope and all teach the same doctrines with minor variations or emphases in some nonessential areas. These Eastern Catholic Churches are not merely “affiliated” with Rome but are fully Catholic in every sense of the word. Those we call “Roman Catholic” are really members of the Western Latin Rite Church.

  • David

    One interesting news angle I find is the competeing ledes.

    BAGHDAD (AP) – Thousands of Iraqi Christians made their way to church through checkpoints and streets lined with blast walls, many drawing hope from a lull in violence to celebrate Christmas Mass in numbers unthinkable a year ago.

    So which is it – more celebrating or less? And can we trust the press to actually tell us the truth?

  • Mollie

    Jerry and David,

    I put up a quick link to that AP story precisely because it seemed to contradict part of the NYT story.

    The NYT story did have good numbers to back up its claim that worship attendance was down — at least at the church in question — from two years ago but I’m not sure how it fits in with the larger AP story.

    I think the real lesson is that when we read stories like this we are very much at the mercy of the reporter to tell us the truth.