Setting the People Free: Advent reflection by Lord Alton on those suffering persecution for their faith

TS Eliot said “Last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s language and next year’s words await another voice”. Whose voices will now be raised for those living in the perpetual bitter winter of persecution because of their beliefs? Setting the People Free.

Setting the People Free: Talk Given To the Anglican Benefice of St. Wilfrid, St.John’s and All Hallows, Lancashire. December 2021

Canon McConkey told me that the theme which would link these Advent Talks were the words from the hymn “ Come thou long expected Jesus born to set thy people free” and he asked me to talk about persecution and religious freedom.

For me, as an admirer of the hymns, words, and lives, of the remarkable Wesley brothers that is an admirable and well-chosen text. 

I will refer to some other hymns and carols as I proceed – and will put my remarks into the context of the Christmas festival, now just days away.

Of course, many who had waited with such anticipation, in Wesley’s words, for the long-expected Jesus, did not recognise Him when He came; and failed to grasp that his birth was not about freedom and political liberation from Roman captivity. Ultimately, as Jesus tells his followers, it is the truth that will set you free.

And over 2000 years millions upon millions of people – today 2.38 billion people – 31% of the world’s population – have chosen that freedom-giving-truth and embraced the Christian faith, knowing that in many places doing so may even be at the cost of their lives.

I love the Nativity but too easily we can wrap ourselves in tinsel and be caught up in the shopping frenzy and consumerism without reflecting, not on the price of presents, but on the price which others pay for the freedoms which we take so easily for granted. 

In the whirly-gig of preparations for the great festival we easily overlook the awesome significance of the manger – when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” – but we also overlook the brutality and violence which accompanies the new Adam at his Bethlehem nativity.

It is a sobering thought that, even as those near magical and enchanted moments are being enacted, when the shepherds and the Magi kneel before Him and worship God, Herod’s ruthless butchers are sharpening and making ready their knives. In the words of another carol,  the sixteenth century Coventry Carol, composed by Robert Croo in 1534. :

Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.”

Even within days of His birth, the life of Jesus is threatened by Herod and his thugs. The theme of the slaughter of the holy innocents is brilliantly caught in Sullivan’s carol, “In Rama There Was A Voice Heard”.

This lament of a mother for her child doomed to die are words with applicability in our own times – in far away places and even in our domestic setting: with children too often the targets: the young girl, like Maria Shahbaz, raped, forcibly married, and forcibly converted in Pakistan – and now in hiding; the Ugandan or Congolese children murdered in a pagan ritual of child sacrifice; the child enlisted in Somalia to be a child soldier or a drugs runner; the boy or girl who, fleeing for their lives as a refugee from Syria or Eritrea, is trafficked, exploited, robbed of innocence or abused; or the baby who never makes it to a manger and whose unique life is abruptly and violently ended.

In all these situations we see a detestation of innocence and the stirrings of evil – the demons feasting in their own fashion – always present, even in the beauty of that moment of birth in Bethlehem. This story tells us everything we need to know about the reality of evil.

There is a children’s picture story where a Santa Claus – St.Nicholas- is reading to the baby Jesus the story of the baby’s birth. “How does the story end?” The baby asks.

Perhaps because we know the answer to that question, we can be very realistic about Christmas, not least because of the visceral hatred that even today lacerates the little town of Bethlehem. 

Christmas is not about trying to escape reality.

All people who suffer and all people who are persecuted are represented by the  boy in the manger.

His acute vulnerability should challenge us to pit ourselves – and to become far more vocal – against today’s Herods. 

Beyond the conviviality – and even sentimentalism – of Christmas Day itself, lies the slaughter of the innocent – on the orders of a man who had political power – and it is no coincidence that the liturgical calendar moves rapidly to the second day of Christmas and the murder of the Deacon, Stephen, the first Christian martyr, stoned to death in the year 36 AD after being denounced for blasphemy – and Christians and others are languishing in prisons this very day on the same charge of blasphemy.

In many places there will be no celebration of Christmas – because it is one long and bitter winter.

C.S.Lewis, in his Narnian Chronicles, describes a world caught in perpetual terror: “it is winter in Narnia” said Mr.Tumnus “and has been for ever so long…always winter but never Christmas.”

Who in 2021 are caught in this bitter winter? Who are the innocents? Who are the Stephens – and what are we doing to strengthen and support them? How are we using our freedoms and our voices to bring them the opportunity to live without fear?

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