In this season of Christmas, as decorations and celebrations crowd around us, I have been thinking about exiles a lot and the whole notion of celebration while in exile in a foreign land. This happened after I turned up in Lajpat Nagar, Delhi, within the precincts of its famous Central Market, where there is a lane that can be perhaps described as an Afghan ghetto. There are a bunch of Afghani restaurants there and I entered one of them to find a bunch of people sitting and talking and Pashto and sipping jasmine tea as they waited for their food to be served. The discussion is often mixed with some Hindi and Urdu and so I know that the discussion is often about politics when not about family. It is very clear that all or almost all of those present have extended family back home in Afghanistan. Another lament that I particularly remember, the Rohingiya Muslims, exiled from Burma, exiled from Bangladesh, once their home land and now wanted by none, pining for the fresh fish from the rivers that they could catch and eat and comparing the experience to the culture of consuming fish caught days before and preserved in a cold storage before moving up to the fish markets throughout the subcontinent where the rivers now yield sewage, not fish. Lamentation about being exiled from one’s home land and trying to celebrate festivals, traditionally associated with joy and festivity is not a new one. In Old Testament times, the collective lament of a people was expressed among others in a Psalm – Psalm 137 expresses it so well…….
“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. 2 There on the poplars we hung our harps, 3 for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?
As we enjoy Christmas in the comfort of our homes, let us remember all those who are being forced to lament and not celebrate at Christmas time and there are many such places around the world. Today there is no Christmas truce in the Middle East, or in northeast Nigeria where Christians are persecuted, with other minorities. The tension in the ancient lands of Jesus’ birth shows no signs of abating. To a region that is caught up in war or to the family caught up in fights, Jesus offers a transformation of hearts so there might be reconciliation. He offers a stepping out of the trenches, away from positions taken against enemies – and into new paths of relating. But what we often see is the dark side of Christmas, the slaughter of innocents, not just babies as in the Biblical narrative, but even adults today that links that horrific episode with the sorrows of mothers throughout history and down to the present.
The Christmas story is secured forever to our lives and to the evil of this world by the lament of Rachel, “weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” The authors of Scripture did not turn away from the incredible suffering that attended the coming of the Messiah. God the Father did not turn away. Jesus did not turn away. We see in his death on the Cross and Resurrection from the dead the cradle of our belief that human judgments are not the final judgments, that human justice is not the final justice, and the power that humans exercise over one another is not the final power. The Christmas story might as well be about reindeer and Santa Claus for sure, if it has nothing to say about these victims and there is no remorse, no lament for them. By putting Rachel’s lament at the heart of the Christmas story, Matthew has shown us how to hold onto faith and hope until the Second Coming. Only as we share in the prayers and the laments of families bereaved and devastated by war and not looking away, can we continue to believe that the savior reigns even now in the faith and tenacity of all those who continue to stand for humanity in the face of hardships and cruelty.
Director of Public Engagements at the International Justice Mission, New Delhi and
Chairman of TRACI