Iraqi refugees line up to receive free food inside the Khazer camp on the outskirts of Irbil, Iraq, on June 29, 2014. (CNS photo/Stringer, Reuters)
When I was in Jordan 8 years ago making Living Stones, I met Hadeel. She was a young Iraqi refugee. She’d come to Jordan five years before with her family because of the war and persecution of Christians. She had finished high school in Jordan and been accepted into dental school. She wanted to be a dentist. But refugees in Jordan can’t work, and they can’t become citizens; all they can do is wait: Wait for things to change back home so they can return or wait until the United Nations or Caritas or the Pontifical Mission Societies or some other organization can help them find refuge in another country. Hadeel thought maybe she could go to Sweden or Germany, or maybe Canada.
I wonder whatever happened to her.
I was thinking about her because recently we've heard news about the close to 40,000 Syrian refugees that arrived in Canada over the last 2 years. I've also been thinking about her because during Advent the readings often speak of this very issue: Bad things happen: war, persecution. People are displaced, and they have to wait for things to get better.
The prophet Jeremiah was writing for the exiled Jews in Babylon. But Jeremiah started speaking to the Jewish people way before the exile to Babylon. He kept telling them that bad things were going to happen if they did not change their ways.
They didn’t change their ways and bad things happened: The Assyrians invaded; they killed the king, destroyed the temple – that was the destruction of the first Temple, the temple Solomon built – and most of the Jews were exiled to Babylon. But afterwards, Jeremiah didn’t say, “I told you so.”
Instead, he changed his message to one of hope – these are all the beautiful readings from Jeremiah that we hear during the Advent season: Bad things happen: war, persecution. People are displaced, and they have to wait for things to get better. And things will get better. This is not forever. The tree of Judah has been cut down, but from that stump a new shoot will sprout. It's also the message from Isaiah that we hear during Advent. For the Jewish people this pointed to the Messiah. For us Christians, it points to Jesus Christ.
Suffering is not forever. There is hope.
During Advent we also sometimes hear from St. Paul's letter to the Thessalonians. He tells them something very similar. It’s not exactly the same situation – Christians in Thessalonica were not exiled, but there was some persecution of Christians, and there was some push-back to Christianity coming to that part of the world. In fact, when Paul was there, he’d had some problems and had to leave in a hurry (Acts 17:1-10). Bad things happen: persecution – but this is not forever. There is hope.
And what do we do while we’re waiting? ‘Cause it’s easy to despair, and it’s easy to get caught up in the difficulties and problems of daily living. So we should continue to “be blameless in holiness” and conduct ourselves “to please God.” Jesus is coming and we need to be ready.
Jesus says very similar things to his disciples in the Gospel of Luke. We have to remember, however, that, while these words are attributed to Jesus – and He probably said some of these things – the Gospel of Luke was written some 50 years after the resurrection. So, a lot of these things that Jesus is talking about had already happened. The Second Temple was destroyed in the year 70, about 15 years before the Gospel of Luke was written. This was a time of great persecution for Christians, and they were displaced.
Most Christians survived the destruction of Jerusalem because Jesus had warned them about the signs, and they fled to the hills. That’s why the centre of Christianity was not Jerusalem but Antioch. Jerusalem was destroyed. Bad things happen: war, persecution. People are displaced, and they have to wait for things to get better.
This is not forever. There is hope.
But, as the Thessalonians, we tend to get into routines. We tend to despair, or we get caught up in the busy-ness and anxieties of life. Jesus is warning us against this. We must always be ready for the end of times. We must always be ready for our own death, “live every day as it was your first day, your last day, your only day.” We are refugees waiting to go home. And everything we do should be ordered towards that.
The most important thing for us is to get to Heaven. The second most important thing is for us to bring others to Heaven with us.
And so the most important thing is our relationship with God. That’s why this year for the first Sunday of Advent, the Psalm was, “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.” That’s the only thing that matters. What are we doing every day to nurture our relationship with God? How is your prayer life? Do you speak (even if it’s yelling and complaining) to God every day? Do you spend some time in silence listening to God speak in your life? Do you read Scripture? Do you pray with Scripture? Do you study Scripture?
That’s why every parish has all kinds of programs to help you grow in faith. You can read books. If you don’t like reading books, you can watch documentaries (there are some good ones here at www.saltandlighttv.org. Actually, if you want to learn about Hadeel and other Christians in the Holy Land, look for my documentary, Living Stones: Walking Humbly in the Land We Call Holy; there’s lots of great stuff at S+L TV). Do you follow Catholic news? Do you read what Pope Francis is saying?
Three years ago in Kenya, in a meeting with young people, Pope Francis said something about this:
Life is full of problems, but there are two ways to look at problems. You can see them as an obstacle, something which ruins you and holds you back, or else you can see them as an opportunity. It’s up to you. Do I see this problem as the path to ruin, or as an opportunity to better myself, my own situation and that of my family, my community, my country?
Dear young friends, we don’t live in the clouds; we live in this world. And this world is full of problems, of temptations to go down the wrong path. But there is something which all of you have, something you will have for a while, and that is the ability to choose which path you want to take, which of these two things you want to choose. Will I let myself be overcome by problems or will I to turn my problems into new opportunities, and win in the end?
Some of the problems you raised are real challenges. So that is my first question: do you want to overcome these challenges, or let yourselves be overcome by them?
A little out of focus, but the only photo I have with Hadeel.
We can sit around waiting, we can despair, or we can get distracted by the busy-ness and anxieties of life. When I met Hadeel she couldn’t do much, but she was volunteering with the Franciscan Sisters helping out with a Bible Camp for the refugee children. There’s always something we can do while we wait for Heaven. But we have to remember that the reason we are doing it is because we are on our way to Heaven and we want to help others get there too!
Advent is a time to remind us that we are all refugees. But it’s also a time to remind us that this is not forever. So let’s stand up straight with our heads high because Jesus is coming soon!
Now, that, is forever!
“This Is Not Forever” - by Sarah Hart From the 2013 recording Above Earth's Lamentation.
Every week, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: firstname.lastname@example.org