Welcome + Worship + Witness
afghan refugee

The Rector: Afghan Refugees, with Love

Saturday 25 December 2021
Christmas Eve (Midnight Mass)/Christmas Day
Sung Eucharist
Revd Nicholas Mercer

One of the most enduring images of 2021 has been the plight of the Afghan people

With the unexpectedly rapid advance of the Taliban, and the collapse of the Afghan Government, we saw thousands of desperate people trying to flee a war torn country

People so desperate in some cases they were prepared to cling to the underside of an aircraft

And then tragically falling to their deaths

In other cases, women were so fearful that they were prepared to hand their babies over the airport fence to the troops

We then witnessed the slaughter of the innocents by ISIS

Such was the speed of the collapse that many desperate people were unable to escape and had to embark on a treacherous journey overland

Just as our Lord had to flee to Egypt to escape the murderous Herod 2000 years ago

Some, no doubt, are beginning to arrive on our own shores

But in our comfortable lives and our comfortable houses we don’t know how lucky we are

All this happened whilst I was on holiday in August

But, on my return to work, I was greeted with a request to start collecting for Afghan refugees

I was delighted with this response and we soon had two wicker baskets in the Tower to receive donations

I mentioned the collection in the weekly sheet and, in no time at all, the baskets were groaning with provisions

One day I went into the Tower and found a box leaning against the wall

I wondered what it was but, on closer inspection, I found that someone had left the box for the refugees

They had also written on it

The words were very simple

“Afghan Refugees” and then in brackets (“with love”)

They had also drawn a love heart

My heart leap for joy at this simple act of kindness

In the midst of all the bloodshed and tragedy “the glory of the Lord shone around”

This act of kindness reminded me of a story which I had read some time ago in a book called “The Righteous”

It was written by Sir Martin Gilbert who was the biographer of Winston Churchill

And the book records those men and women who heroically helped to save Jews against the murderous Third Reich in World War Two

In the final chapter of the book there was a very moving story about the kindness of a German guard at the very end of the war

Due to the rapid advance of Soviet forces, a group of Jews were moved to a slave labour camp on the southern border of Poland

They worked in appalling conditions attempting to keep snow off a runway

They a had a small hut in which they kept their tools and where they were, periodically, able to rest

The story was told by one of the survivors as follows:

During a break in their work, the labourers were surprised to find a Christmas cake in a paper bag, left on a bench in the hut where they kept their tools. A German soldier, who knew it was there did nothing. After finding the bag, they returned to work “constantly debating the risk of consuming the delicacy”. The soldier was still yelling his lungs out until the landing strip was clear of snow. At the end of their shift, totally exhausted and hungry, they returned to the shack to dispose of the tools. The cake was still there.

Suddenly the soldier walked out of the hut and left us all alone. We stood speechless. One of the girls then broke the silence. “Listen, all of you” she said. “There is something phony about this guy. First of all he yelled at us all too much and now he walks out and leaves us unguarded? I don’t care what you do, but I am going to take a piece of that cake and eat it right now”.

Like hungry animals we all fell in line and within a minute the cake was gone. Cleaning up every little crumb we found a small note at the bottom of the pan. It said “Glory to God in the Highest and on earth, peace goodwill towards men”.

Silently the soldier escorted us back to the barracks, his gun still drawn and heavy boots still loudly hitting the ground”

Of all the stories recorded in the book, this story stands out for me above all others

It is certainly not the most heroic nor was a Jewish life saved

However, in the midst of all the brutality, the kindness of the soldier shone through

Not only did he provide the cake for the labourers in appalling conditions

But he used the very words spoken by the angels when announcing the birth of Jesus Christ – which we heard read this evening/morning

Put another way

In the darkness, the birth of the Christ child was proclaimed and the glory of the Lord shone around

In the National Gallery in London there is a painting called “The adoration of the Kings” by the Flemish painter Jan Gossaert”

This painting is a scene of the Nativity [and is on the front of your service sheet this morning]

And is set in a scene of total destruction amongst ruined buildings.

Many of the sixteenth and seventeenth century paintings of the nativity are set in such landscapes and are deeply symbolic

But what the paintings are trying to say is that, whatever the destruction we find in the world or in our own lives

The triumph of the Christ child is clear

Indeed, the greater the destruction, the clearer the proclamation

Indeed, the sovereignty of God becomes understandable through the birth of a child when so much else is unintelligible

I often say to tourists who visit Bolton Priory that we “inhabit the ruins” here at Bolton Abbey

Because we do

But, despite all that has been thrown at us over the best part of a thousand years, we have continued to worship and glorify God

And, we do so again this Christmas,

Furthermore, despite the pandemic and all that we have had to endure over the past two years, we do so, once again, amidst our own ruins

Indeed, it is the pandemic which makes the Glory of God all the brighter

In the words of the angels/or the German soldier, we too say tonight/today

“Glory to God in the highest, peace, good will to all men”

Like the Afghan woman – we hold the child up high – and pass him on safely to others

And like the unknown person who left the box in the Tower

We too proclaim the Glory of the Lord –

Or put another way “Afghan Refugees (with love)”