By: Rev. Fr. Sylvanus AMEH

Readings: 2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a-16; Psalm 89; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

As the liturgical season of Advent closes, Christmas draws closer, and the closer Christmas gets, the more directly the readings of the Masses of the days immediately preceding Christmas talk about it. Today’s readings for instance, talks about God’s promise to David that his dynasty shall be secured forever, as one shall come from his lineage whose sovereignty will have no end. The gospel text points undoubtedly to the fulfillment of this promise in the announcement of the birth of Jesus by the angel Gabriel who said, about the child Mary shall conceive, that “the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David…and of his kingdom, there will be no end” (Lk 1:32-33).

In both of these readings, we hear the words “The Lord is with you” addressed to David and to Mary. Though the circumstances under which these words were spoken vary, the affirmation is the same. While David was given the assurance of God’s abiding presence with him at a time when he was unperturbed, having defeated all his enemies round about, Mary was scared by the vision of the angel she saw and had to be assured that she was not alone, that God was with her. In the one case, David wanted to do something for God, while in the other, God wanted Mary to do something for him, and the assurances of God’s presence with them by prophet Nathan and the angel Gabriel respectively, must have meant a great deal to them and given them much courage.

David and Mary represents for us today, two social classes of people in the society namely, the rich and the poor. David was a great king, whose kingdom was safe from external aggressors; Mary on the other hand, was a peasant girl who had to deal daily with the struggles of life in the countryside. However, both of them were not free from worries. The same also is true of us: rich or poor, we are not free from worries, even though the kind of things we worry about will differ greatly. It is important to point here that just as God was with David in his wealth and also with Mary in her poverty (her state of being poor can be deduced from her song of praise in Luke 1:46-54), that is how God is also with us, irrespective of our social standing.

Advent points us to Christmas, and at Christmas, we celebrate Immanuel, God-with-Us (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23). Christmas is a reminder of the fact that God is always with his people, that God never forgets us (Isaiah 49:14-16). Jesus also gives us this assurance when he said he is with us “even to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Child of God, as you celebrate Christmas then, have it in mind that you are celebrating God’s presence with you. Irrespective of your condition in life, whether you are rich or poor, God is with you; in sickness or in good health, God is with you; whether you are a childless couple or you have children, God is with you; if you are married or you are still searching for a life partner, God is with you. Is your business thriving or is it struggling, God is with you in it; are you of a buoyant, strong faith or are you battling to stay on the path of righteousness, God is also with you. Dear friends, at all times, in all circumstances, God is and always wants to be with us.

There is also one more important lesson we need to draw from the lives of David and Mary, and that is, their situation in life did not make them drift away from God. David was wealthy, his kingdom was safe from enemies, his life was comfortable, but he did not forget God in his riches, rather, he wanted to use his wealth to serve God. Mary on the other hand was poor, but her poverty was not an excuse for sin. Oftentimes, these extremes become a reason for people to separate themselves from God. In wealth, some people no longer see the need for God; they get buried in their luxuries, and their material possessions become their god. Some others see their lack of material things as a reason for sin, and they expect God to “understand”. While wealth is good, poverty is not a sin and must never be used as an excuse to sin. We must keep this in mind at all times, especially during this season of Christmas when a lot of people get involved in all sorts of evil. Let us pray therefore, for a heart of contentment using Proverbs 30:7-9:

Two things I ask of you, Lord; do not refuse me before I die: keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.

Dear friends, as we prepare to celebrate Christmas, may we not by any means remove God from the picture, for it is all about Immanuel, God-with-us. May the peace of the Lord be with you all. Maranatha, come Lord Jesus!

Vatican permits priests to say up to four Masses on Christmas Day

The Vatican’s liturgy congregation will permit priests to say up to four Masses on Christmas Day, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God on Jan. 1, and Epiphany to accommodate more worshipers amid the pandemic.

Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, signed a decree announcing the permission Dec. 16.

The decree said that diocesan bishops may allow priests in their diocese to say up to four Masses on the three solemnities “in view of the situation brought about by the worldwide spread of the pandemic, by virtue of the faculties conceded to this Congregation by the Holy Father Francis, and due to the persistence of the general contagion of the so-called COVID-19 virus.”

According to the Code of Canon Law, a priest ordinarily may celebrate Mass just once per day.

Canon 905 says that priests may be allowed by their local bishop to offer up to two Masses per day “if there is a shortage of priests,” or up to three Masses per day on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation “if pastoral necessity requires it.”

Restrictions in place in some parts of the world, aimed at controlling the spread of the coronavirus, limit the number of people present at liturgies and some parishes have been offering extra Masses on Sundays and during the week to allow more people to attend.

Christmas Day and Jan. 1 are solemnities and therefore required days for Catholics to attend Mass. In the United States, the Solemnity of Epiphany has been moved to Sunday.

During the pandemic, some bishops have dispensed Catholics in their diocese from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation if attendance would put them at risk of contracting the virus.

Source Credit: Catholic News Agency

Nigerian Christians facing ‘calculated genocide,’ bishop Avenya tells US Congress

The world must not ignore the “genocide” of Christians in Nigeria, the Catholic Bishop of Gboko told members of Congress on Thursday.

“The mass slaughter of Christians in Nigeria’s Middle Belt, by every standard, meets the criteria for a calculated genocide from the definition of the Genocide Convention,” Bishop William Avenya of Gboko, in center of Nigeria, told a congressional commission on Thursday.

The bishop said that “it is depressing that our Middle Belt region has truly become a vale of tears, a region where mass burials are very common!”

Bishop Avenya was testifying at a Dec. 17 hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a bipartisan congressional commission, on “Conflict and Killings in Nigeria’s Middle Belt.”

The Middle Belt is a fertile region stretching across the central part of Nigeria, the site of an increasing amount of violence in recent years where many farming villages in a predominantly Christian have been attacked.

According to the International Crisis Group, there were an average of more than 2,000 fatalities per year from 2011 to 2016 in the Middle Belt. Although 600 have died in the Middle Belt this year, the number is nearly six times that when the area of concern includes the country’s north, said Robert Destro, Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the State Department.

Christians and Muslims in Nigeria have suffered an mounting toll from violent attacks by Fulani militants in the Middle Belt and in the country’s northeast by the terror groups Islamic State West Africa Province (Iswap)—formerly Boko Haram—and by the new Boko Haram group that split off from Iswap.

According to the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), more than two million are estimated to be “internally-displaced” in Nigeria. 

The drivers of the violence are complex, members of Congress and State Department officials said on Thursday.

Fulanis are nomadic herdsmen who populate the broader region of the Sahel, some have been driven south into the Middle Belt by desertification caused by climate change, commission co-chair Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) said on Thursday, and he noted there are also counter-reprisals committed against Fulanis.

Nevertheless, “[t]he largest, dominant driver of conflict in the Middle Belt region is committed by Fulani extremists, who appear driven in large part by ethno-religious chauvinism, against mostly Christian farmers – though I do note that elsewhere Shia Muslims are also victims, and that intra-Sunni conflicts also exist within the Muslim community as well,” Smith said.

Many of the reported attacks on villages are “massacres,” Smith said, as civilians are targeted for killings, injuries, and rape.

In 2017, Catholic bishops reported an increasing number and intensity of attacks by Fulanis, who were employing sophisticated weaponry not before seen in previous herder-farmer clashes.

Some bishops have emphasized the ethno-religious nature of the attacks, claiming that the largely-Muslim Fulani militants specifically target Christian villages and churches.

However, one Nigerian priest involved in conflict management recently told Aid to the Church in Need that the violence “is more of a resource conflict than a religious one,” as the nomadic herdsmen are in search of water and grazing land because of desertification.

U.S. religious freedom ambassador Sam Brownback said on Thursday that violence “often plays out along faith lines” even if the conflicts were not religious in origin.

Non-governmental organizations have warned of “increasingly religious undertones” to the conflict in the last year, he said, with reports of religious sites burned and forced conversions of some kidnapping victims.

Bishop Avenya charged the Nigerian government for failing to protect Christians in the Middle Belt.

“How can one explain a scenario where as many as a hundred innocent and defenceless villagers are killed in one single attack and no one says anything about it?” he asked.

“It appears that the system has not only permitted but is also aiding the enthronement of supremacist views of one religious group against the others,” he said.

Destro said that religious and political leaders and aid groups have emphasized the lack of security in the country.

“If a community calls the Nigerian equivalent of 911, nobody answers. There is no effective police protection,” he said. Local communities do not have the resources to protect themselves and prosecute the perpetrators of violence.

Destro noted that “the Nigerians themselves are beside themselves” over the violence, and that “[t]here is some denial that there’s religious violence, but I did not find that to be the case in most instances.”

The hearing came after two more attacks on civilians were reported in international media this week. On Dec. 15, the Islamist terror group Boko Haram admitted culpability for the kidnapping of hundreds of schoolboys at a school in northwestern state of Katsina, and in the country’s southeast a Nigerian priest was kidnapped by four armed men on Monday, and later released on Wednesday.

Due to the ongoing violence against civilians in Nigeria, the State Department last week designated Nigeria a “country of particular concern (CPC)” for the first time ever—a listing reserved for the countries with the worst records on religious freedom, such as China, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia.

The CPC designation is “hopefully a true wakeup call” to the government, Smith said, noting that if there is no proper response to the designation, the U.S. should consider using sanctions.

Source Credit: Catholic News Agency

IN-vironmemtal Sanitation (HOMILY FOR 2ND SUNDAY OF ADVENT, YEAR B)

By: Rev. Fr. Sylvanus AMEH

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Psalm 85; 2 Peter 3:8-18; Mark 1:1-8

Once upon a time in Nigeria, it was law that on the last Saturday of every month, from 7am to 10am, people must come out to clean their environment in a sanitation exercise (some States held theirs on the first Saturday). During this period, if one was caught wandering around instead of participating in this exercise, there were sanctions to be imposed. Drainages were emptied of wastes that found their way into them, overgrown bushes were cut, minor repairs were done on roads, refuse were gathered into incinerators and burnt, homes were also thoroughly cleaned, and many other cleaning exercises were carried out on this day. Back then, we (or at least, I) used to enjoy the sanitation days, and I looked forward to it. Communities were much cleaner than we have them today, which in any case, was the sole reason for the day of “Environmental Sanitation” as it was called.

To stay healthy, one of the many things we need to do is to keep our environment clean. There is also an aura of confidence and serenity that comes with a clean environment. Normally, people are attracted to an environment that is clean and motorists prefer to use a road that is smooth, but where the reverse is the case, people will do everything possible to avoid such places. When we are expecting an important guest, we do some sort of environmental sanitation to put our homes, environment and the road leading to our homes in order. This is exactly what the readings of today’s Mass speak to us about.

Last week, being the First Sunday of Advent, our attention was directed to the fact of Jesus’ coming again in glory, and we were encouraged to wait for that coming. Today, the Church is shifting our attention to what we ought to do in order to be well prepared for the coming of Jesus. The readings of today’s Mass hint us on what to do. More precisely, Reading I tells us to do an ‘IN-vironmental Sanitation’, and the Gospel, borrowing from Reading I, reiterates the same point. I used the word “IN-vironmental” (which does not actually exist) because the sanitation God is calling on us to do is an internal one. Jesus is speaking to us today to clean the inside of our hearts in preparation for his coming, just as we clean our physical environment in preparation for the coming of an important guest (and in the strict sense, no guest is more important than Jesus). What sort of IN-viromental sanitation are we expected to do then? Let us consult the Prophet Isaiah for answers.

The prophecy of Isaiah of a voice crying in the wilderness, asking people to prepare a way for the Lord, was fulfilled in the person of John the Baptist when he came as Jesus’ herald. Isaiah said (and John would later repeat those words) “make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Let valleys be filled, let mountains be made low, uneven ground leveled and rough places be made plain.” These words speak volumes to us, and it is in them that we find the key to this IN-vironmental sanitation. Today, God invites us to:

  • Make straight the winding ways of dishonesty, of cheating in business and in marriage, of lies and all forms of attitude that render us unreliable.
  • Level the mountain of pride and arrogance, of harshness with people and abuse of authority, of being overbearing with our spouses and children; we must come down from the mountain of impudence and disrespect for elders.
  • Fill in every valley of fear, covering it up with faith. We must also fill up the valley of impatience with other people, of anger that leaves us with a sense of emptiness; we ought to cover up the valley of greed and selfishness that makes us take what belongs to others and never wanting to share what is ours; every valley of intolerance of people who do not share the same opinion or beliefs with us must also be filled in.
  • We must make plain every rough place in us that allows for brash talk, we must make plain the roughness of rudeness, we must make plain the rough side of us that allows for indecent dressing, we must make plain every rough attitude that sours our relationship with others.

When we have done a thorough IN-vironmental sanitation, Scripture tells us that the glory of God shall be revealed to us (Isaiah 40:5). The implication of this prophetic word is that while God desires a loving relationship with us, a heart full of evil is not habitable to him, and every sin becomes an obstacle preventing us from experiencing God’s glory. Just as it is not possible to see what is on the other side of a mountain or what is on the other side of a bend in the road, so it is impossible to see the glory of God if we do not remove the mountains and crooked ways of our lives. It is very unlikely that God, who would not allow any stain of sin into his kingdom (Rev 21:27) will dwell in a heart full of iniquities; do not forget that we are the Temples of the Holy Spirit (I Cor 3:16). In Matthew 5:8, Jesus says “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. All of these imply that we shall be denying ourselves the opportunity of experiencing God’s glory if we do not rid our hearts of evil.

Child of God, the primary call to all of us in today’s Mass is that in preparing for Christmas, we should not make the mistake of misplacing priorities. While physical preparations such as decorating homes and offices, shopping for clothes and their accessories, travelling to meet loved ones and arranging for food and drinks is good, ridding our souls of every form of sin is best. May we do well therefore, to put in much effort in our spiritual preparations for the coming of Jesus as we look forward to Christmas. Maranatha, come, Lord Jesus!