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|The Peace Pulpit: Homilies by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton|
special arrangement, The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company
is able to make available Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton's weekly Sunday homilies
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Reflecting on that question for a while, one is tempted to begin to wonder if God's promise is real or not. Are they just empty words? It is so clear that we live in an extremely violent world. On Christmas Day, today, in Iraq, four more U.S. soldiers and six Iraqi people were killed. I heard on the radio the words of Pope John Paul II proclaimed in his homily in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome earlier today. He was pleading for peace. In the very place where Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in the Holy Land, there is terrible violence going on. We live in a world of extreme violence: wars, terrorism, violence within our own community, violence sometimes even in our homes. How can we proclaim the message of peace?
As I began to reflect on the scriptures, I came to realize that our times are not very different from the times when Isaiah proclaimed those joyful words that we just heard. He proclaimed that the coming Messiah would be a Prince of Peace who would dispel the darkness of violence and sin. Isaiah proclaimed those words at a time when the land of the chosen people was being overwhelmed by a coalition of military forces. In fact -- and I find this somewhat ironic -- the nations that were in coalition against the chosen people at the time of Isaiah were from that very part of the world where we are now at war. The nations in the area where Iraq is now were, at the time of Isaiah, at war with and plotting against God's people.
Yet Isaiah, even in the midst of this violence, could proclaim a message of peace.
If you look at the Gospel, you realize, of course, that Jesus was born into a world and into a country occupied by a foreign army -- the brutal Roman army. The emperor from Rome, the one who decreed that census we hear about, had an iron grip over the people into whom Jesus was born. It was a time of violence. And yet, the angels proclaimed good news: "A savior is born who will bring peace, who promises peace for all peoples!"
You have to ask yourself, how can that be? Does God fulfill his promises?
As I tried to grapple with this, I remembered an experience from my own life that taught me a very important and lasting lesson. It happened 24 years ago -- 1979, in Iran, another country in the Middle East. There had been a revolution. The shah of Iran, whom the United States and the United Kingdom had installed as ruler of Iran in 1953, had been driven out, and he had taken refuge in this country. The people of Iran wanted him to be brought back to be put on trial for all the brutal and terrible things he had done against them. Because we gave him refuge, they were angry with the United States, and they began to denounce us as "the great Satan." Then students took over the U.S. embassy, held Americans hostage and created a very violent situation.
Some of you remember all this. Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini spoke violent words against us. But the Ayatollah also invited me and two other Christian ministers to go to Iran, to Tehran, the capitol, to celebrate Christmas services with the hostages in the U.S. embassy. There had been over 400 hostages to begin with, but by December 1979, most had been released. Only 53 were left. The Ayatollah knew that they were Christian, and so he agreed that they could have Christian services on Christmas because that was such an important feast for them.
I remember going into that city of Tehran and going to the embassy. I had left Detroit on Sunday afternoon and arrived in Tehran at about 11 p.m. Monday, Christmas Eve. I went directly to the embassy, passing by a crowd of people outside who were shouting, denouncing the United States and proclaiming violence against us. It was as violent a situation as I have seen. Then we went into the embassy.
We had planned to celebrate one service with all of the hostages, but we found out that the students who had taken over wouldn't allow that. We wondered why. We argued with them for a while, because we had planned a special service to celebrate with all the hostages at once. Finally we came to realize that the students were really afraid.
These were just young people. They weren't trained, but they were heavily armed. They were afraid that if all the hostages were together in one room a scuffle might break out and then someone might fire a gun. There would be violence and killing. They did not want that to happen, so they separated us and each of us went to a separate part of the embassy compound.
I was in one small room. During the night, the students would bring four or five hostages at a time to each of us, and we celebrated Christmas services in the small groups. The first group I celebrated with was four people, three of whom happened to be Catholic. The other person was a Jewish man. I remember asking him, "Do you mind if we celebrate the Christian Eucharist?" He said, "No. No. I am just happy to be here for these few hours."
We celebrated the Sacrament of Reconciliation and then the Sacrament of Eucharist, a midnight Mass just as we did here last night. It was a very tense celebration. There was a strong awareness of violence in the room. The young students were around the walls of the room with their rifles ready, and posters on the walls depicted violent scenes.
Then the second group of people was brought to me, two women, the only women left as hostages. All the other women had been let go. I celebrated a second Eucharistic liturgy with them. One was Anne Swift, who worked with the State Department and was an Anglican/Episcopalian. The other was Katherine Koob, who was the head of an organization called the U.S.-Iranian Intercultural Association.
We went through the Liturgy of the Word and were preparing for the Eucharist. I reflected for a few minutes on the scriptures, and then -- I don't know exactly why I did this, because I hadn't done it before and I wasn't used to doing it -- I asked these two women to share something about how they reacted to the scriptures that evening.
When I looked over at Anne first, she was just overwhelmed emotionally. She was weeping. She said, "I can't say anything." Then I turned to Katherine, and she said she wanted to say something.
She began to share some of her feelings, mostly in the context of a prayer -- one of the most profound prayers that I could have imagined. First she prayed, obviously, for her own family and for herself, but then in the spirit of extraordinary forgiveness and love she began to pray for the people of Iran, for peace for them. She prayed for her captors, prayed for God's blessing upon them, God's love for them. It was clear she was praying out of a spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation. She was doing what Jesus had asked us to do. "Don't just love those who love you. Love your enemies."
As she prayed, I testify that a spirit of peacefulness filled that room. In the midst of all that violence, there was a sense of profound peace and joy.
It taught me a lesson about how God's peace really can happen and does happen once we begin to follow God's way as revealed to us in Jesus. Katherine had understood that Jesus had asked us to forgive those who hurt us, to return good for evil, never to return hate for hate, and it transformed a situation of violence into a situation of peace.
We all remember, I'm sure, how Jesus proclaimed the Reign of God is at hand. The Reign of God, which means peace and joy for all people, is at hand, ready for us to enter into it. We must make that step. We have to begin to live the way of Jesus. When we do, and the promises of Jesus are fulfilled, there will be peace. First in our own hearts, in our own spirits -- but then as we share that peace with others, it begins to spread through the world.
The lesson we have to learn is that God's promises are for real. God does fulfill those promises, but God fulfills them when you and I begin to hear God's word and live by it. Then that peace that Jesus brings will be real in our lives.
The message, then, for us at Christmas is to rejoice because Jesus does come. He scatters the darkness of sin, the darkness of violence and hatred and brings the light of God's goodness and love into our world. It is up to you and to me to accept what Jesus brings, live it and share it so that peace will come to all the peoples of the world.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
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