Saturday, October 22, 2016

Christmas in October or 'The Bells of Bartella'

I wonder why they didn’t destroy the bells?  The armed forces of the Islamic State desecrated the interior of St. Matthew’s Syriac Orthodox Church in the town of Bartella, located in northern Iraq, which had been the home of thousands of Assyrian Christians until two or so years ago. The Islamic State, according to news reports, had turned the church into some sort of training facility for their army. The floors are covered with filth, the hymnbooks are strewn about and the pews are no longer in their orderly formation.  There are other signs of destruction and defacing in and around the church, yet the church bells remain intact.  And yesterday, when the Iraqi forces freed the town and reclaimed the church, the sound of church bells rang across the liberated skies.

The bells rang messages to the world: the city is taken back from the enemy; the thousands of refugees may start to plan their return home; evil had lost a foothold; God is not dead.

I imagine that for at least some of those soldiers working for the Joint Operations Command, whether Christians or Muslims, this was what we might call “Christmas in October.” This was good news. It was more than one small victory in one small city. The opportunity to ring the church bells was an opportunity to send a message from God: “Do not doubt that God will win the battle.”

As I read the headlines in the newspapers and watch the nightly news it becomes tempting to conclude that God has given up on this world.  The litany of death and destruction caused by humans against humans is enough to cause one to give up any hope that there is a “Good” which is waging battle against “Evil.”  But then, even though it might not be lead story material, we hear that the bells of Bartella are ringing again.  I wonder if this is how God always invades history: small, even insignificant events in time are signs. Signs of hope. Signs that God is surely alive and acting.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men."
(“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1867)

I know it’s only October.  But today, hearing the “Bells of Bartella”, I cannot help but think of Christmas.  If God seems “dead” to you today, keep listening for the bells. God promises that he will send you a sign. You may need to search in some remote village, but there, in a small stable, behind the animals, in a feeding trough, you will find your sign. And if you have lost the heart to search, which sometimes happens, please keep an ear open for the sound of bells.  Do you hear them peal, loud and deep? Keep listening…

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