By Jessica Easthope and Allyson Escobar
PROSPECT HEIGHTS — The theme this Christmastime in the Diocese of Brooklyn is the color red.
That was evident when Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio and the faithful gathered under the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch at Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza on Dec. 5 for the annual lighting of a Christmas tree and blessing of a life-size nativity crèche.
The Christmas tree, decked out in 17,000 red lights and 2,500 ribbons, was lit red, symbolizing the thousands of Christians who are persecuted worldwide every year.
“It’s a wonderful night that we bless the Christmas tree and the crèche here at Grand Army Plaza, inviting the world that this is what Christmas is about — that it’s first a holy day, not just a holiday,” Bishop DiMarzio said.
“The Holy Father told us that perhaps more Christians have been martyred in this century than in the first centuries of the church, when they were persecuted during the Roman Empire,” the bishop said.
“It’s true that so many have given their lives and suffered in many ways … not just the religious, but [laypersons] who are persecuted for their faith to all over the world. We have to recognize that faith is God’s gift to humankind, and to let people express their faith in the way they want,” he said.
“The beautiful thing about Christmas is the Incarnation where God becomes a man. And in our world today, where people feel very intensely alone, this tree lit red is a reminder that God is with us; whether it’s here in Brooklyn, or in the Middle East where there is terrible suffering,” said Msgr. Kieran Harrington, vicar for communications for the diocese and president and chairman of DeSales Media Group, The Tablet’s parent company.
According to a report on religious persecution by nonprofit Aid to the Church in Need, Christians have suffered increased violence and oppression because of a rise in religious nationalism, and are at great risk living and practicing their faith in war-torn areas and countries like northern Nigeria, North Korea, China and the Middle East.
Open Doors USA’s 2019 World Watch List reported that 1,845 churches and other Christian places of worship were attacked, 3,105 believers were detained without trial and 4,305 Christians were killed for their faith during the one-year period that ended on Oct. 31, 2018.
“We enter a time of year when we say the name of Christ more than any other time. We do so in the word Christmas. For 300 million people around the world, saying that name, believing in that Man or professing to be a Christian will put them in jeopardy of persecution or death,” said Edward Clancy, Director of Outreach for Aid to the Church in Need.
“To put it in perspective, there are 2,500 red ribbons on the tree at Grand Army Plaza. More than that number of Christians will die for their faith in the upcoming year. We have so much to be thankful for here, but we should also be prayerfully supportive of those who do not have the freedoms that we enjoy.”
In Brooklyn and Queens, Catholics have hung red ribbons and lights on their own trees, homes and parishes to bring awareness to the issue of persecuted Christians.
Father Charles P. Keeney, the director of the Propagation of the Faith (Missions Office) for the Brooklyn Diocese, said that Catholics should never take the freedom to practice their faith for granted.
“The birth of Jesus took place in Bethlehem, in the Middle East, where there has been centuries of fighting over religion, and many Christians in particular have lost their lives,” Father Keeney said.
“Here in Brooklyn, we’re a city of immigrants from all over the world, and … we’re able to put up Christmas trees, to celebrate in both secular and religious spaces, whereas a lot of Catholic brothers and sisters around the world cannot safely just go to Mass. So anything we can do to [raise awareness] a little bit more is a good thing,” he said.
Bishop DiMarzio highlighted the importance of having a public nativity scene in a prominent place like the Grand Army Plaza. He cited Pope Francis’ document on Advent and the pope visit on Dec. 1 to Greccio, Italy, where St. Francis of Assisi built the first crèche in 1223.
“The life-size [nativity] is a reminder of how Jesus was born, that he took on the poverty of human flesh; he who was God became man for us, and we are all brothers and sisters related to one another in Christ,” Bishop DiMarzio said.
The festive evening was emceed by Kelly Wright, a former reporter for Fox News, and included a spoken word performance, Christmas caroling and songs performed by the gospel choir from St. Saviour H.S., Park Slope.
“The way we dedicate this tree and bless this crèche at the crossroads of Brooklyn — to bring awareness and to unite in faith with those who keep the light of Christ shining in the darkest corners of the world,” Wright said. “Our faith lights in darkness.”
As the Christmas tree and plaza was lit in a dazzling red, candles were passed around, and families watched in awe as the St. Saviour choir sang “Silent Night.”
The ceremony was sponsored by the Diocese of Brooklyn, DeSales Media Group and Aid to the Church in Need.