I have been watching the plight of persecuted Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere for a while now. About a year ago, some friends and I organized a grassroots campaign to raise awareness for their plight, as well as raise money for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA). We called the project Help Nasara in honor of the Arabic ن (pronounced “noon”) painted on people’s houses in Syria and Iraq to identify them as Christian so that they could be forcibly converted, live in dhimmitude, or face martyrdom.
It can be difficult for those of us who live quiet and comfortable lives in the West to comprehend or even ponder the unspeakable terror and violence these people live with every single day. It is not something we have experienced and we can easy fall into an “it’s over there” mentality. For Christians, however, this is not a correct understanding of the Mystical Body. These Christians are not a “them” they are in fact “us” in a very real way. We are all united in communion with Christ as our head. They are our brothers and sisters in a way that runs deeper than blood, but that is also bound in the blood of Our Savior, Jesus Christ. Our blindness to them is a great dishonor to the Church and to them. While most of us cannot run to Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, the Ukraine, or other regions; we can pray, fast, raise awareness, and give alms within our means. We can also pay close attention to their witness because they are teaching us, and the world, something truly profound.
Last Friday I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed when a posting of three pictures caught my attention. They were photographs of a wedding at St. George’s Church in Homs, Syria. The church was completely bombed out. There was no roof, no windows, no altar; there were only bare stone walls still standing. One of the pictures showed the surrounding buildings which were also bombed out and reduced to rubble in areas. What caught my attention was the picture of the couple standing before the priest to be joined in Holy Matrimony.
There is no doubt that all in attendance have lost much during the Syrian Civil War that continues to rage on today. Many have lost family, friends, homes, churches, and nearly everything. The couple themselves have probably lost much, and yet, there they stood in hope. Rather than despair and focus on what has been lost, they have chosen to stand up and come together in conjugal communion, even if it is only for one day. I could see the face of Christ clearly in their witness. It is truly an awe-inspiring witness to the true definition of marriage, to the Blessed Trinity, the love Christ has for the Church, and the power of the Cross.
God has constantly referred to His love for His people in marital language. The Jewish people were His Bride and often they were “adulterous” when they gave into sin and idolatry. The covenant God has established between His people and Himself is the basis for the theological understanding of the Sacrament of Marriage and the reason the Church teaches as she does about the nature of marriage. A man and woman coming together is to mirror the communion God has established with His Church and the communion that is in Him through the Blessed Trinity.
The communion of love between God and people, a fundamental part of Revelation and faith experience of Israel, finds a meaningful expression in the marriage covenant which is established between a man and a woman. For this reason the central word of Revelation, “God loves His people,” is likewise proclaimed through the living and concrete word whereby a man and a woman express their conjugal love. Their bond of love becomes the image and the symbol of the covenant which unites God and His people. And the same sin which can harm the conjugal covenant becomes the image of the infidelity of the people of their God; idolatry is prostitution, infidelity is adultery, disobedience to the law is abandonment of the spousal love of the Lord. But the infidelity of Israel does not destroy the eternal fidelity of the Lord, and therefore the ever faithful love of God is put forward as the model of the faithful love which should exist between spouses.
St. John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 12
This covenant which God established reaches its fulfillment in the God-man, Jesus Christ. He comes to be fully united to His People. He is the Bridegroom who lays down His life for His Bride, the Church. In this sacrifice and in His Incarnation, he shares the truth of marriage that was established in Genesis.
The communion between God and His people finds its definitive fulfillment in Jesus Christ, the Bridegroom who loves and gives Himself as the Savior of humanity, uniting it Himself as His body. He reveals the original truth of marriage, the truth of the “beginning,” and, freeing man from his hardness of heart, He makes man capable of realizing this truth in its entirety.
Familiaris Consortio, 13
It is especially enlightening for the believer to see a baptized man and woman come together in times of extreme pain and struggle. War can rob people of their dignity, hope, and faith. Instead, these two have chosen to reveal to the world that they want to live together and love as Christ calls them to love in total self-emptying love. They are standing up to the violent ideologies that have trapped them in their homeland, and in it, they are sharing the Gospel with those who witness their commitment to one another and to God.
How can I ever express the happiness of the marriage that is joined together by the Church strengthened by an offering, sealed by a blessing, announced by angels and ratified by the Father?…How wonderful the bond between two believers with a single hope, a single desire, a single observance, a single service! They are both brethren and both fellow-servants; there is no separation between them in spirit or flesh; in fact they are truly two in one flesh and where the flesh is one, one is the spirit.
Tertullian, Ad Uxorem, II, VIII, 6-8
The unity of a man and a woman during war-time is especially poignant. All sacramental marriages are a reminder to the Church of the self-emptying and sacrificial love poured out for us by Christ on the Cross. It is an even more tangible reminder when a man and woman become husband and wife without the assurance of long years, a home, or a safe place to worship the most Holy Trinity in the Liturgy. While we never know the hour of our death, it becomes a completely different way of living to be living in a time of war. That is why their witness is so powerful. They have come to a bombed out Church to profess their desire to live in conjugal communion and sacrifice no matter the end. This is not sentimentality. This is an authentic witness to the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Spouses are therefore the permanent reminder to the Church of what happened on the Cross; they are for one another and for the children witnesses to the salvation in which the sacrament makes them sharers. Of this salvation event marriage, like every sacrament, is a memorial, actuation and prophecy. As a memorial, the sacrament gives them the grace and duty of commemorating the great works of God and of bearing witness to them before their children. As actuation, it gives them the grace and duty of putting into practice in the present, towards each other and their children, the demands of a love which forgives and redeems. As prophecy, it gives them the grace and duty of living and bearing witness to the hope of the future encounter with Christ.
Familiaris Consortio, 13
A couple that comes to confer the Sacrament of Marriage upon one another in the presence of the hierarchical Church, is pointing to Christ and their eschatological end. Marriage is to lead one another to Heaven. As a Sacrament, it always points to Christ and to the glory of Heaven. This becomes even more urgent for those who marry while they live in an area ravaged by war. They do not know if their hour will come tonight, tomorrow, or decades from now. We all must fix our gaze on Heaven constantly, and those who live in violence are a reminder to those of us who do not, just how urgent this call is for all of us.
Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
These images that come out of Syria, Iraq, and other war torn areas are an incredible witness for us and for the world. It is a reminder to all of us within the Mystical Body that we are inextricably linked with one another and Christ. It is a reminder to those of us who can, or have, become complacent in our own marriages, to re-examine and deepen our understanding of this great mystery and gift. Those of us who have entered into this Sacrament, have chosen an encounter with Christ through our spouse. We have chosen to lead our spouse and our children to Heaven. That is the purpose and meaning of our lives. It is as simple and as difficult as that truth. We are called to be saints, every single one of us. Marriage is how God sanctifies those of us in that vocation.
It is also important for us to remember our persecuted brethren who daily endure violence. Many have been martyred, even crucified (yes in this day-in-age), sold into slavery, and lost everything they own. These are not people who are “over there” and out of our sight and mind. They are our brothers and sisters. We must do what we can for them, even if all we have the power to do is fast, pray, and give alms. Prayer and fasting can change the world. Let’s not forget about them. We owe it to them, to God, and to the Mystical Body.