One of my favorite reporters covering the Iraq War is the New York Times‘ Damien 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.