Saturday, December 24, 2011

Peace, Goodwill Among People

Notre-Dame de l'Atlas Monestary, Tibhirine, Algeria
In the days of Emperor Augustus, in the era of peace through strength within the Roman Empire, the Prince of Peace was born in Bethlehem.  He was born in a barn, and his first bed was a feeding trough for animals.  This child would be called Son of God.  An angel proclaimed his birth to powerless men, who watched sheep for a living.  The Heavenly Host praised God saying: "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, goodwill among people." 

The promise of the Christ Child is peace.  A new era has begun.  The days are now numbered for the oppressive era of peace through strength and power through weapons.  Jesus would rule through love and hope.  When power, strength, and murder was used to destroy the Lord on the cross: he took our sins upon himself and defeated death forever through resurrection life. 

I don't need to tell you that mortality still hangs in the air.  I don't need to tell you that strength and power are still found in the hands of the wealthy and best armed.  But I do need to tell you this.  Because of the Lord whose birth we celebrate tonight, their days are numbered.  Life eternal is the promise for all who belong to Christ.  On Christmas, as much as any day of the year, this truth needs to be celebrated and embraced. 

I recently have been deeply moved learning more about the details of an event with occurred exactly 18 years ago tonight.  In a place, thousands of miles away, courageous disciples of Christ found themselves at the intersection of Christmas peace and terrorism's violence. 
The Trappest Monks of Tibhirine

In the midst of the Algerian Civil War, between the government of the North African nation of Algeria and Islamic extremists, a group of French Trappist monks of Notre Dame de l'Atlas Monastery in Tibhirine were faced with a painful decision.  Would they stay in their community, even as many European journalist and other foreigners were being assassinated?  It would have been understandable if they chose to leave, but after careful discussion and many prayers they chose to stay.  The Muslim community of their town wanted them to stay and though they were French, to many of these monks, Tibhirine was the only real home they had.

On Christmas Eve 1993, as preparations were being made for vigils and mass to be celebrated on the Nativity of our Lord, a gang of terrorists, who had only two weeks before massacred 12 Croatian Catholics, stormed into monastery.  Father Christian, the head of the monestary, faced the leader of the terrorist gang, and insisted the thugs step outside.  "The monastery is a place of prayer, no arms have ever entered in here.  If you want to talk we must go outside."

Father Christian and the leader of the gang, Emir Sayah Attiya, stepped outside and with amazing courage Christian stood up against the terrorist's demands, not with weapons, but with faith and hope.  "You have no choice." Attiya repeated over and over again.  Each time Christian responded, "Yes, we have a choice."  Finally, using his knowledge of the Koran, Father Christian appealed to the terrorist's faith by quoting a passage that required respect toward men of prayer.  "You have come here armed just as we are preparing to celebrate Christmas, the feast of the Prince of Peace," Christian said."  With that, Attiya responded, "I am sorry, I didn't know." And he and his terrorist gang left.
Father Christian

What an encounter, but an even more moving witness of the power of faith and hope and peace didn't come till after that terrible encounter.  After the terrorists' departure, the monks didn't flee in horror, they didn't seek revenge, and didn't dig in for war.  The monastery bell was rung and they went to church to celebrate Christmas Vigils and Midnight Mass, as if nothing happened. 

In the days that followed the monks had many conversations about leaving Tibhirine.  Some of the monks wanted to go, and they were free to do just that.  But Christian and the majority stayed.  The Algerian government insisted on stationing armed guards around the monastery.  Father Christian flat out refused.  They would not face terror with terror.  They would not fight murder with murder.  They would remain faithful to their calling as Trappist monks of the Cisterican Order.  They would remain faithful to Christ and be agents of peace and hope. 

The gift of Jesus Christ is the gift of peace and hope for the world!  The world continues to be a place of terror and war.  Strength is still measured by the amount of money and weapons you have.  But we know, tonight, such worldly strength will not win.  It's days are numbered.  But you are warned... the world is not through yet.  The Gospels tell it to us straight: if you stand for peace and hope, you will be persecuted.  But if you stand for peace and hope, you will experience today, what most will not experience until the Kingdom of Heaven is fully revealed.  Christ gives us life beyond what we see in front of our face and we are free to live that truth right now.  Yes, we have a choice. 

Two years after the Christmas Eve encounter, terrorists, not related to the original gang, stormed the monastery at Tibhirine at 1:15 AM on March 27, 1996.  Seven of the monks were taken prisoner, including Father Christian.  Two were left behind, unnoticed by the terrorists.  On May 21 of the same year, those seven monks were martyred.  There still are many mysteries regarding their deaths, and its not exactly known what organization killed them.  But we do know this... they died because of their faith: their faith in Christ, their faith in hope, their faith in peace.  And as martyrs they are an inspiration to me and countless others who hold on to the hope of tonight: Christ was born to bring peace, goodwill among people.

The days of Augustus, Empire, Terrorism, and war are numbered.  The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.  Some say: "you have no choice."  You must fight back strength with strength.  But others say: "Yes, you have a choice."  Through Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, may we have the faith to stand with those who have chosen peace, love, hope, and Christ.  They are heroes of the faith, and have experienced in this life the true gift of Christmas.