During Lent and Easter we remember the humanity of Christ. A man among men, he walked in the dust of Palestine, and was crucified on a wooden cross, outside Jerusalem’s walls.
In many ways, the essence of Christianity is these “intransigent historical claims,” as Evelyn Waugh put it in Brideshead Revisited. Christianity insists it is not only about fine ideas or soaring sentiments, but that it is also about brute facts. Again Waugh, in the introduction to his novel Helena, put it best: “Everything about the new religion was capable of interpretation, could be refined and diminished; everything except the unreasonable assertion that God became man and died on a cross; not a myth or an allegory; true God, truly man, tortured to death at a particular moment in time, at a particular geographical place, as a matter of plain historical fact.”
Without these plain historical facts, Christianity might be just another mystery religion. So we insist, we know, that Christ walked in the dust of Palestine. And we know He did not walk alone. Rather, as we have been hearing in Lenten and Easter readings, there were witnesses, and these witnesses recorded what they saw and heard and touched.
After His resurrection, Christ appeared to them, in the flesh but capable of passing through walls. Thomas, who had been absent, did not believe it. And so the Lord, infinitely merciful, appeared to Thomas so that Thomas could see and hear and touch for himself. Thomas then made the first proclamation that Jesus was “God,” and Jesus told him, and the others, to go make disciples of all men.
Put yourself in that room. What would you do after the Lord Himself had appeared to you and asked you to spread the good news? I believe you would get to work immediately (someone who couldn’t be thus inspired would not, I think, be human). But how would you do it? It would make sense to follow the trade routes, along which lie the Jewish communities to whom you could proclaim the new testament.
Those trade routes stretched west, of course, to Rome and to Spain, perhaps even to Britain, but they also stretched to the East, to India and perhaps even to China. (Remember India was part of the Hellenistic world created by the conquests of Alexander, the Hellenistic world of which Palestine was part, and Syriac was a principal language of the region from Palestine to India.)
Tradition teaches us that Thomas in particular – but also Matthew, Bartholomew, and Thaddeus – were evangelizers of the East. History backs it up: archeological evidence shows there were Christians in India in the 50s AD.
Thomas and the other disciples who spread the faith to the East left churches in their wake (or at least, nascent Christian communities that would, just as they did in Rome, turn homes into churches and then build basilicas over them). These churches, rooted in the apostolic proclamation but developing within the cultures in which they took root, because the churches of the East, in Egypt, Nubia, Ethiopia, Asia Minor, Armenia, Syria, Persia, and India.
There were doctrinal disputes among them, and between them and the West, but, as joint statements from those churches and the Catholic Church during the pontificate of John Paul II proclaimed, they remained faithful witnesses to Christ. And their faithfulness was costly, especially once the East was overrun by Islam.
Most of those churches survive today, though greatly diminished, located in the dust that Jesus and His disciples trod. In Iraq, for example, there are several such churches – the Assyrian, the Chaldean (Assyrians in full communion with Rome), the Syrian Orthodox, and the Syrian Catholic (Syrian Christians in full communion with Rome).
Often the West ignored these churches of the East, or forgot about them all together, and left them to their fate. One tragic example: the Assyrians of northern Iraq. When the Western powers met at the end of World War I to divvy up the Ottoman Empire, they were aware of the Assyrians’ plight, located as they were among overwhelmingly Islamic and hostile Kurds. They considered but rejected the idea of a separate state or protected zone for the Assyrians. Thus, the Assyrians fled from the Kurdish-controlled mountains to the plains around Nineveh, and half of them were massacred by the Kurds in the process.
When the US invaded Iraq in March 2003, there were approximately one million Christians in Iraq. In the aftermath, Iraqi Christians fell victim to the attacks of Islamic radicals, hundreds were killed, hundreds of thousands fled, and thousands became internally displaced.
The point is a simple one: we cannot be indifferent to the plight of the churches in Iraq. There are no easy solutions, but as Christian citizens in America, we can – and should – demand that our State Department work not only to make Iraq safe for democracy, but to make it safe for its own Christian citizens, citizens whose origin goes back not to the Protestant missions of the eighteenth century or to the Crusades, but all the way back to the apostles and to Christ Himself.
We must show a special solidarity with these ancient Christian communities in whatever ways we can, for the disciples carried the faith to them as well as to us. Otherwise, in our very lifetimes, they are likely to disappear. What will we say to the Lord when He asks us what we did to prevent it?