Sermon preached at the Sung Eucharist on All Saints' Day 2023
God will wipe away every tear.
His Excellency The Most Reverend Bashar Matti Warda Archbishop of Erbil of the Chaldeans
Wednesday, 1st November 2023 at 5.00 PM
Today's readings centre on the theme of "Praising God and thanking Him for His love for us, from the depths of our hearts, minds, and with all our strength and gifts”. He loved us so much that He sacrificed His only Son for our sake. In response to this love, we try to respond with all our heart, soul, mind and might by being close to Him; to get to know Him. If my body prevents this unity, I must offer it to Him, just as He offered His body for me to make me holy, believing that life is lived with Christ and in Christ.
The martyrs eternally stand as witnesses in their supreme love for God; a love founded in Christ's love for us, the one who gave His life like a grain of wheat so that we may have life to the full. They made the moments of their death an opportunity to sacrifice themselves for Him and to strengthen the faith of their brothers and sisters. Their eyes fixed on one face; the face of Christ, free from any barriers for their souls to achieving this unity. Our Lord Jesus did not call us to only listen to His Word but invited us to have a deep and constant relationship with Him, to unite with Him. It is not about knowing of Christ but to know Him personally as then many graces will be given to further that relationship. Therefore, martyrdom is not only a sacrifice from us but it is born of the fruit of Him who loved us first and planted the great seed of this love in us. This testimony is essential for building the Church, the body of Christ.
St. Paul the Apostle wrote: “This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work” (1 Timothy 3:1). The reason was that the bishop was often the first to receive martyrdom, and one who desired to be a bishop meant that he was prepared for martyrdom and unity with Jesus Christ. Therefore, our Eastern Chaldean Church made sure there was a special place where the relics of the saints were preserved; special hymns are chanted for them every day during morning and evening prayers. When the church celebrates the ordination of a bishop, this celebration is considered a feast for the church. They start the prayers on Saturday evening and ask the elected bishop to sit in the Martyrs' house, praying there, reflecting on his service in which he must be prepared to unite with Jesus, to be a martyr. In addition, the believers preserved a handful of the dust that fell on the martyr's body in a special jar called “Khnana”, which they placed in the house of martyrs. And when a young man and woman come forward to marry before the altar, a tiny portion of this dust is mixed in a cup of wine and presented to the bride and bridegroom; for they are also called to show a martyr’s witness in their marriage covenant, striving together to emulate Christ and the Church, as taught by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians about the importance of serving each other in the name of Jesus Christ, willing to sacrifice themselves for each other to make their marriage holy.
It both it is a submission, a new birth and bonding with Christ in his eternal sacrifice for us.
In the heart of the ancient Nineveh city, Mosul, in 1972, a beautiful light named Ragheed Ganni was born. Destined for success, he completed a degree in civil engineering in 1993. Yet, the call of God could not be ignored. In 1996, he began a spiritual journey to Rome, surrounding himself with studies of philosophy and theology at the Irish College. Ordained in Rome 2001, he returned to his birthplace, Mosul, filled with the Holy Spirit passion, generosity, and deep love for the Church and his people. Even among the shadows of danger in Mosul, where the security situation was falling apart and forcing over 4,000 Christian families to consider escape, Father Ragheed's dedication never failed. He openly celebrated the Mass, constantly organized Christian education activities , youth gatherings and looking after each person in all their pastoral needs education , healthcare, catechism, marriage.
2003 marked another dark era for Iraq. With the political regime's fall, the once-proud ancient nation fell into chaos, becoming a playground for political and sectarian revenge. Christians, already a minority, were persecuted by extremist Islamic groups, while organized crime spared no one. A mass exodus began, with many finding refuge in Kurdistan, hoping for a chance of safety, while a large number left Iraq altogether.
The historic city of Mosul particularly bore much hatred and anger, becoming a total landscape of fear. Threats followed a person at every corner; kidnappings, killings based on one's faith, and cruel demands to seize homes from Christians became the harrowing new normal. The continued bombings created a shadow so dark that the city felt like a prison with no escape from threats and violence . Capturing this grim reality, Father Ragheed, in a heartfelt message to his mentor in Rome, Professor Robert Christian, shared the horror the day before he met his tragic fate: "The situation here is worse than hell, and my church has been attacked a few more times since we last met. Last week, two guards of it were wounded after an attack. We shall meet in the near future and have a chat about all these events”.
As a leader of the persecuted Church in Mosul, he knew he was facing death at any moment and the persecution wouldn't spare his young life, especially as he continued only to celebrate the divine Mass.
He wrote his last prayer on October 12, 2006:
"Lord, I don't think they will see my prayer as a pessimistic one, for everyone knew me as optimistic.
Perhaps, momentarily, they wondered about my optimism, for they saw me in the harshest of situations, smiling, encouraging, and strong.
But when they recall the times of hardship I lived and the difficulties I went through, those that showed my weakness and Your strength, my fragility and Your might, they'll know that I, my Hope, always spoke of You.
Because I truly knew You, and You were the reason for my optimism, even when I realized that my death was near.
But let me be with You now, as I have a hope to place before You.
You know better than me the times we live in, and I know how weak humans are. I want You to be my strength, and I won't let anyone disrespect the priesthood I bear.
Help me not to weaken and surrender myself out of fear for my life.
For I wish to die for You, to live with You and in You.
I am now ready to meet You.
Help me not to weaken during the trial.
For I've told You that I know humans, but I've also said that I know You. My Strength... My Might... My Hope."
Some 8 months later 3 June 2007 Fr Ragheed and three deacons were leaving the church after the Mass; four gunmen approached them, demanded he close the Church. He responded, “How can I close the house of God?". They shot him and the deacons, filling their car with explosives so that no one could reach them.
The world lost that beautiful light that came into the world 35 years before. I lost a dear friend and brother in Christ. 16 years have passed; we have had ISIS, but we survive as the seeds of the Church are the blood of the martyrs. Yet the churches are full as we work like Fr Ragheed with a heart for our flock; we know each of our sheep as the true shepherd should.
His story is just one story of martyrdom in a land where over 1200 Christians were brutally murdered since 2003 in all denomination’s bishop Farj Raho , Fr Paulus Iskander, Fr Thaaer Wasim. To witness for Christ is a treasure beyond all value that we hold deep in our souls. We should be prepared to give our bodies to the head of the Church; this was the example that motivated all of us to stay and fight the good fight as Christ must be witnessed in Iraq. The priest must be there to be the shepherd.
In Erbil, Kurdistan we have through the support of Christian agencies built many structures in our Christian quarter to keep Christianity in Iraq: a seminary, 6 churches, four schools, a Catholic University, a hospital. We still need help, but we always have hope and faith in the Holy Spirit.
Fr. Ragheed and all martyrs were examples of the Lord’s blessings, they tasted and saw the goodness of the Lord, and purified themselves just as He is pure, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb, That is why we celebrate and honour their love to Christ without tears, since God Himself wiped away every tear from our eyes.
God bless you all.