Christmas is coming. For many especially in the West it is a time to gather with family and friends. To exchange gifts. To eat and drink more than we probably should. For Christians, Christmas is of course the time to celebrate the Nativity of Jesus Christ, although the cultural tsunami of the holidays obscures this historical event for too many.
While countless who celebrate Christmas go about their business searching to find the latest online sale or scrambling to find a parking spot to finish those seemingly never-ending last minute errands, those in the very region where Christ was born struggle to survive.
Christian communities full of history in Syria have been uprooted and in many cases destroyed. Venerable male and female monastics, together with hierarchs, martyrs, and confessors from Syria (e.g., Ephraim the Syrian; Isaac Bishop of Ninevah; Holy Martyr Aquilina) fill the registry of Saints of the Orthodox Church. The western world has witnessed — and often nothing more — the absolute devastation and unspeakable tragedies that have befallen Aleppo, a city outgoing UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently described as a “synonym for hell.”
Earlier this month, 25 people were killed in a bombing at St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo. Egypt is another historically important Christian country whose lands have cultivated revered saints such as Anthony the Great and Mary of Egypt. Today Christians there are treated as second-class citizens including as it relates to church construction or employment opportunities.
But for the Christian, especially in today’s Middle East, there is at least one thing that can never be extinguished: hope. In St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans we read: “Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (5:5).
What can give us lasting hope today? Where can people find a well that never runs dry? The Incarnation of the God-man Christ (Theanthropos, in Greek) provides authentic hope. He came down from heaven not to great fanfare but born as a servant for all in a cave and a manger. There, in Bethlehem, born of the Virgin Mary was the never-setting light. This light will be most radiant on Christmas day and help to illumine and guide Christians and all people of goodwill.
One of the greatest manifestations of hope for the Christian in the Middle East and indeed around the world is the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Located in present-day Istanbul and headed by His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, this First Throne of Orthodox Christianity is in many ways flourishing in the tumultuous and increasingly volatile Turkey.
It is headquartered in the Phanar district of Constantinople, which means “lighthouse,” for there cannot be a more apt adjective to describe the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Despite persecution, it perseveres. In the face of restrictions, it remains resilient. The target of hostility and fake news it only returns love.
Notwithstanding state-sanctioned obstacles, including the continued closure of its only seminary at Halki, His All-Holiness has achieved remarkable success during his 25-years as Ecumenical Patriarch – an anniversary he celebrated this fall not with sensational celebrations but with humility, as a servant for all.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate witnessed prestige during the Byzantine Empire (think, for example, of the 6th-century marvel of Hagia Sophia, today a UNESCO World Heritage Centre), as well as pillaging during the 1204 Sack of Constantinople that ended the Fourth Crusade. It also experienced centuries under Ottoman rule covered meticulously by the great historian Sir Steven Runciman in his classic book The Great Church in Captivity.
Today the unwaning Phanar shines brighter than in recent times and helps guide the world’s 300 million plus Orthodox Christians. The Ecumenical Patriarchate has breathed new life into the synodal system of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church (epitomized by the convening of the Holy and Great Council), it has promoted the importance of inter-religious dialogue and continuously calls for the protection of the environment, each serving like little flashlights for their faithful.
The great work of the Incarnation provided humanity with the opportunity to become “God by grace,” as Athanasios the Great and the Fathers of the Church teach. Among the many beautiful passages in the Salutations to the Theotokos one reads:
Hail! O Heavenly Ladder, by which God descended.
Hail! O Bridge, conveying those from earth to Heaven.
As God Christ was inaccessible but as Man He was accessible and dwelt among us. This miracle is often set aside in our never-ending list of holiday to-dos; but for Christians who are afflicted and ill-treated, in the Middle East or anywhere else, the spiritual leadership of the Phanar and above all the Christmas light embed them with unwavering hope.
by Evangelos Sotiropoulos