Christopher Smith will not be locking the doors
In October 2010, a group of gunmen – ‘Islamists’, to use the currently approved word – burst into a church in Baghdad during the Sunday evening mass, and slaughtered their priest, Fr Thaer Abdal, at the altar. The murderers believed – and we know this because they said so as they did it – that they would go to paradise for carrying out the killing, and the Christians would go to hell. Having done some shooting, when the police arrived they detonated the explosives packed around their bodies and, in all, killed fifty-odd members of that Chaldean Catholic community, injuring seventy-eight more.
A number of recent events might make us rather more conscious of our perspective on all this, and it is, as you might imagine, impossible for a priest not to see the attack on an elderly brother in a suburb of Rouen as an attack on all priests and on all worshipping Christians. Yet the sad fact is that this making of a new martyr, and he is an actual martyr – in sharp distinction from the category of wicked men who die in the course of their murdering – has only been considered noteworthy in this country because it happened a mere hundred miles from Eastbourne, on a route which some of us may have taken as we have explored places like Lisieux and Bayeux. For Christians in the Middle East, this treatment has been the norm for centuries, and the situation in getting worse. Christianity in the Middle East, and the Islamic world in general, is being strangled, and remarkably quickly. It is difficult to know who to pray for next, though prayer is pretty much all we have to offer. The martyrdom at Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray is many things, but it is not ‘a new level of terrorism’, as I have read more than once since it happened: it is a very common form of terrorism, in a new place.
It puts things into a truer perspective, doesn’t it? I ponder where to go on holiday next year while Fr Jacques Hamel is forced to his knees and his throat cut. Easy pickings at the age of 85, and killed not because he was Fr Jacques Hamel, but because those who killed him want us to be afraid to practise our faith. And in our persistent refusal to contemplate our own mortality, we forget the valuable cliché that, as it was for the man in the parable who built bigger and bigger barns, “you can’t take it with you”. All our worldly comforts pale into insignificance when set next to the reward for the one who holds the Christian faith even as the knife is at his throat.
Having killed the priest, the young men who would bring about an end to all that we hold dear entered into a conversation with the elderly nuns who had been at mass. The murderers couldn’t understand why they, the sisters, were not afraid to die, and proceeded to tell them that they were wrong to believe that Jesus is both God and man. Yet the sisters were not afraid precisely because Jesus is both God and man, and they, probably, have acknowledged that fact all their lives. They continued to acknowledge it even as they thought they, too, were going to be butchered. And so we are thrown back on the glorious truth of the Christian Faith: God has bridged the immeasurable gulf between himself and us in the Incarnation. As Austin Farrer said in his Celebration of Faith, “His love for us is that He comes to us. So the divine incarnation is our all-or-nothing. It is a pity, no doubt, that faith in Christ divides us from Jews and Turks; but the acknowledgement of that vital truth is always divisive until it becomes universal.”
It is no wonder that if all you can do is fear God – a God who remains utterly transcendent, utterly apart from you – you will not be able to realise the true humanity He has given you. It only makes sense in the Incarnation, for, to quote Farrer again: “in dealing humanly with His human creatures, the Creator moulds Himself in mercy on the creaturely form, and becomes as that which He has made”.
Who knows how risky it may be to gather for worship in fifty years’ time? And, of course, it’s not just worshipping Christians who are fighting against the inevitable anxiety. I was sad to read that, in the light of a second attempted abduction at a garrison, this time of a military civilian at Aldershot, soldiers at the base had been told by their superiors not to wear their uniforms in the town. It will not surprise readers of New Directions that I, no doubt like your own parish priest, have no plans to change my uniform policy!
The practice of the Faith – which for our purposes means going to mass regularly – is important both because we are bound as Christians to worship the one true God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and because doing so is a continual witness to the world around us of what we believe. We are the people we are because of the way we worship. And so the practice of the Faith is also a continual rebuke to those who would destroy us and God’s Church. An offer of funding for church security measures has recently come round from the Home Office; but to be honest, the thing your clergy most pray for is that you should be at mass. An ‘Islamist’ could slit my throat at the altar in two seconds flat any day of the week. What matters is that we continue to worship God anyway. And for the Faith we need not fear – for in the Incarnation the world is pulled back from the brink, and the rift between God and man begins to be healed. And ultimately, it can only continue that way: the way of reconciliation between God and His creation.