Christmas Message by Bishop Matthew Hassan KUKAH, Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, Northwest Nigeria
1: Good news to the World:
Hello everyone, men and women of goodwill all over the world, we to whom the news of the birth of Jesus was first announced on that cold winter night where the shepherds kept watch, that night when the first Noel was pronounced. The choice of poor shepherds living in such open, dangerous and harsh conditions as the first hearers of this good news must be seen as evidence that the birth of Jesus is a guarantee for the healing of our broken world. His choice of time, place and circumstances of entry into the world remain in sharp contrast to His Kingship, its glory and power. Let us open our doors to receive Him.
2: Jesus is the King and the Truth:
Questioned by Pilate about His claims of Kingship, Jesus said: Yes, I am a king. I was born for this, I came into the world for this: to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice. (Jn. 18: 37). These words of Jesus have a deep sense of finality that force a life changing decision upon us depending on the choice we make. When we are confronted with the message of Jesus, we can either abandon everything and follow him as Peter and his brothers did (Mt. 5:1ff), come down from our tall trees of pride as Zacchaeus did (Lk. 19:5), leave our Accounting Desks as Matthew did (Mt. 9:9), or jump into the water even though we cannot swim as Peter did (Jn. 21:7). We can even get up from a sick bed and attend to Him as Peter’s mother-in-law did (Lk. 4:38ff), or, feel so upset by it all that we call the message intolerable language and simply abandon Him (Jn. 6:60). We can, faced with the Truth, go into murderous rage like Herod and order the killing of all children for fear that your kingdom is under threat (Mt. 2:16ff), or like Herodias, ask for the head of a carrier of Truth like John the Baptist on a plate (Mk. 6:25). The authorities would take the extreme option of ordering His crucifixion.
Times have not changed. Everywhere and every time that people holding power without authority hear the sound of Truth, they quiver and waiver. For the believer in the message of Jesus Christ, Truth has a price, including loss of life. Sinful though we are, led by Jesus, we are also called to bear witness to the truth. Truth is never convenient. Today, truth is often caricatured to mean what the powerful want it to be. Truth is bent to suit the ideology of the party in power, the interests of the economic and bureaucratic class, those who presume they have power over life and death, masters of the universe. Often, the windmills of the powerful melt the sweat, tears and sufferings of the poor to feed the machinery of state. Secular state power imprisons, the Truth of Jesus liberates. Hence Jesus said; You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free (Jn. 8:32). This freedom gives us the spirit to make the right moral choices. St. Paul warned us against the temptation of; being tossed to and fro and being carried away by every wind of doctrine (Eph. 4:14). Pope Benedict XVI, Emeritus, warned against the dictatorship of relativism.
3: What is Jesus saying to the world today?
Today, the persecution of Christians who stand for the Truth of Jesus is a worldwide phenomenon. His crucifixion was a defining moment for the history of humanity because, the curtains of the temple split into two, the earth shook, the rocks split and graves broke open (Mt. 27:51). The Message of Jesus remains incomprehensible and unfathomable. His Truth has split history into two and our future is determined by the side we stand on.
As long as evil still stalks the world, as long as people show that they prefer darkness to light, so long must the light of Jesus remain a threat to darkness (Jn. 3:19). When Michael Nnadi our teenage Seminarian from Sokoto Diocese stared down the nozzle of the guns of terrorists and called them to repentance, he knew he was signing his signature with the the blood of martyrdom. When Mrs. Bolanle Ataga, a Kaduna based housewife of a medical doctor, defied the evil hands of the head of her captors who sought to violate her honour in exchange for freedom, she knew she was signing her signature with the blood of martyrdom. When Lawan Andimi leader of the Christian community in Michika, Adamawa State stretched out his neck and was slaughtered by his abductors because of his faith, he knew that his blood would flow into the ocean of those martyrs who have gone before him. When our dear Leah Sharibu raised her voice against the advice of her young Muslim friends who loved her dearly, and wanted her to deny being a Christian, she, like Jesus acted in defiance but she knew what awaits her in a new Jerusalem, the capital of martyrdom. Their heroic witnesses re-echo the defiance of the Apostles who said: We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).
4: Prophetic anger and the urgency of Now:
The coming of Jesus Christ into the world marked the end of prophesy because it was about His coming that the prophets of old spoke (Heb. 1:1). This is why His coming fitted perfectly into the template of earlier prophesy: He was born in Bethlehem, came from the tribe of Judah, descended from Abraham and was born of a virgin as all the prophets had foretold. So, Jesus is not a prophet. It is to Him and His coming that the prophets were anointed.
As in the days of old, those in power and those seeking power are constantly in search of made-to-measure prophets and prophesies. This is not new. The prophet Micah warned that: My people are deceived by prophets who promise peace to those who pay them (Mic. 3:5). Prophesy must rise beyond the froth of the political exigencies of the moment and offer society the lucidity and purity of the message of Jesus Christ. The Lord Himself warned that those who kill us will believe they are doing the will of God, that we should expect expulsions from the places of honour (Jn. 16:2). Still, the Apostle Paul already warned, Woe upon me if I do not preach the Gospel (1 Cor. 9:16). He also added that we must preach this gospel not based on convenience or praise but, welcome or unwelcome (2 Tim. 4:2). We who are bearers of the light of Christ must be the first to admit in all humility that we are saved by grace and faith and not our works (Eph. 2:8-9). Furthermore, that we carry these sacred messages in weak, human earthenware vessels (2 Cor. 4:7).
We preachers must learn the art of humility from the Lord Himself. He was God, yet He learnt to obey through suffering (Heb. 5:8). We must learn to take occasional rejection as part of our mission. We are often not necessarily better off than those we condemn. There is a lot in our personal and public lives that does not honour the Gospel. The very idea that today, we are measuring the efficacy of our apostolates by the size of human structures or the level of our material prosperity is in sharp contrast to the mind of Christ the one who was born in a manger(Lk. 2:7) rode on a borrowed donkey(Mt. 21: 1ff), had nowhere to lay his head (Lk. 9: 58), ate the last supper with his disciples in a friend’s upper room (MT. 26: 18) and was buried in a borrowed tomb(Lk. 23:55). We have heard complaints from politicians whom religious leaders love to castigate that even they cannot tell the difference between real preachers and merchants simply using the gospel for self-enrichment. The celebration of Christmas calls us not just to condemn injustice in our society, but to; act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with God (Mic. 6:8).
5: A Call for Environmental Justice:
For two weeks (Oct 31st – Nov 13th, 2021), World leaders met in Glasgow for the Climate change Conference (COP26). While the rest of the world struggles to preserve the future for its civilisations and citizens with a sense of urgency, Nigerians have continued to ignore the existential threats posed by the environmental disaster that we face. Nigeria established an Ecological Fund way back in 1981 while the Obasanjo administration set up the Ministry for Environment in 1999. We have heard of plans, projects, huge budgets to resolve the threats to our environment. Air and water pollution, waste management, deforestation, desertification, erosion, and flooding, continue to threaten Agriculture, Aquaculture and the welfare of citizens despite all these grand plans. Over time, we have seen long, good promises caught in the web of bureaucratic fraud.
In his Encyclical on the care of the Earth, Laudato Si, published on May 24th, 2015, Pope Francis warned that: We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather, with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combatting poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded and at the same time, protecting nature (139). There is an urgent need to reverse the effect of our sins against the Niger Delta and to quickly embark on local and national initiatives to ensure the future by full environmental restoration. We cannot afford to continue with the reckless pollution of our environment that is destroying aquatic, terrestrial, and human lives. The clock is ticking.
6: Still on our Children
Although we seem to have moved on ignoring the fate of our children in the custody of evil men, this moral scar of shame on our face cannot be wished way. Tales and promises about planned rescues have since deteriorated into mere whispers. Nothing expresses the powerlessness of the families like the silence of state at the federal level. Today, after over seven years, our over one hundred Chibok Girls are still marooned in the ocean of uncertainty. Over three years after, Leah Sharibu is still unaccounted for. Students of the Federal Government College, Yauri, and children from Islamiyya School, Katsina, are still in captivity. This does not include hundreds of other children whose captures were less dramatic. We also have lost count of hundreds of individuals and families who have been kidnapped and live below the radar of publicity. We have before us a government totally oblivious to the cherished values of the sacredness of life.
The silence of the federal government only feeds the ugly beast of complicity in the deeds of these evil people who have suspended the future of entire generations of our children. Every day, we hear of failure of intelligence, yet, those experts who provide intelligence claim that they have always done their duty diligently and efficiently. Does the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria not believe that he owes parents and citizens answers as to where our children are and when they are coming home? Does the President of Nigeria not owe us an explanation and answers as to when the abductions, kidnappings, brutality, senseless, and endless massacres of our citizens will end? When will our refugees from Cameroon, Chad or Niger return home? We need urgent answers to these questions.
While I commend the efforts of our security men and women, I call on the President, in collaboration with the Governors who are doing their best to preserve and protect their people to develop a more honest, open and robust strategy for ending the humiliation of our people and our restoring social order to our people. We have borne enough humiliation as communities and a country.
7: An Electoral Law, the Vote and the Hope:
Happily, we are inching closer and closer in our search for a viable and credible electoral process. We commend the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, and the National Assembly for falling into line with the wishes of our people and injecting technological innovation into our electoral process. The National Assembly should quickly take notice of the observations made by the President on the issues of Direct or Indirect Primaries and return the Bill to the President for assent. I believe that the President’s heart is still in the right place and we should focus on the serious issues.
Emboldened and inspired by these new developments in our Electoral laws, I wish to call on Nigerians, especially the Youth, to seize the moment by coming out to register and be ready to vote. Endsars protests and the aftermath should be a mere punctuation mark in the sentences and chapters of our struggle for a better society. There is a lot to live for in this country. There is a lot for our Youth to dream about. The spirit of Christmas should be seen as a spirit of renewal. Be courageous because we shall turn the corner together.
8: A Dialogue of real and true Brotherhood/Sisterhood:
At about this time last year when I raised the alarm about the perilous state of affairs in northern Nigeria, all kinds of accusations were levelled against me especially by my northern brethren. When the Catholic Bishops protested openly against the killings of our people in March 2020, we were accused of acting against government with religious motives being imputed to our noble intentions. Now, we are fully in the grip of evil.
Today, a feeling of vindication only saddens me as I have watched the north break into a cacophony of quarrelsome blame games over our tragic situation. A catalogue of unprecedented cruelty has been unleashed on innocent citizens across the northern states. In their sleep, on their farmlands, in their markets, or even on the highway, innocent citizens have been mowed down and turned into burnt offerings to gods of evil. Communities have been turned into gulags of misery, death, pain and perfidy. We must move quickly before Arewa, our beloved Arewa, descends into Arewanistan!
9: Bridges instead of Walls:
I saw a quote somewhere which said: We were all humans until Race disconnected us, Religion separated us, Politics divided us and Wealth classified us. True, while the politicians have used race, politics and wealth to divide us, we religious leaders must stand firm in the face of injustice. When the politician embark on outright favouritism or nepotism, we must not be carried away by the belief that our religion is being favoured.
The challenge before us religious leaders now is to rescue religion from the clutches of those who are simply keen to use it to feed their ambitions for power. Religious leaders must stand together and condemn lack of fairness to any group because the powerful and the powerless all need to be saved. If we are to learn any lesson today from the tragedy we are in, it is the consequences of the mismanagement of our identities.
In his Letter, St. James tells us that; Pure and undefiled religion simply means coming to the aid of the poor, widows and orphans in their suffering and keeping oneself from being corrupted by the world (Jas. 1:27). We religious leaders must encourage our people to return to the values of Kindness, Love, Honesty, Trust and Civility into our private, family, and public life. This is the obligation of all those who have heard the message of Christmas and its appeal to us to become men and women of goodwill.
The greatest lesson from our collective tragedy in Nigeria is for us to move away from thinking that we can triumph as members of one faith, a clan, or a tribe. A good society has to build bridges instead of walls, use differences to build a beautiful coat of unity like that of Joseph (Gen. 37:3). This is why Jesus taught us to pray to ‘Our Father,’ and not ‘My Father’ (Lk. 11:2). Pope Francis, in his recent Encyclical, Fratelli Tutti: (We are) All Brothers (Oct. 3, 2020) of the consequences of erecting walls by warning that: When new walls are erected for self-preservation, the outside world ceases to exist and leaves only my world, to the point that others, no longer considered human beings possessed of an inalienable dignity, become only them. We encounter the temptation to build a culture of walls, to raise walls, walls in the heart, walls on the land, in order to prevent this encounter with other cultures, with other people. Those who raise the walls will end up as slaves within the very walls they have built. They are left without horizons, for they lack the will to change others (29). We need to take the Pope’s words seriously.
10: Some Good news for Us
Finally, some good news for our Diocese. We elevated five Deacons to the sacred priesthood on September 23rd this year. By the grace of God, on December 30th, five days from now, three of our sons will be elevated to the order of the Diaconate. Please continue to pray for the Lord’s blessings upon us. We must never forget the good tidings of Christmas which assure us that: A Saviour has been born to us, God’s gift to humanity (Lk. 2:11). May God give our nation peace. Happy Christmas to us all.