As the people of Lebanon end 2020 still dealing with the emotional and political fallout of the explosion that rocked Beirut's port in August, Pope Francis urged them to stand firm like the cedar featured on their flag.
"Like the cedar that withstands every storm, may you make the most of present events in order to rediscover your identity, which is to bring to the whole world the sweet fragrance of mutual respect, coexistence and pluralism," the pope said in a letter Dec. 24 to the people of Lebanon.
Sent to Cardinal Bechara Rai, the Maronite patriarch and president of the country's bishops' conference, the pope's letter made specific requests of Lebanese Christians and of the country's political leaders, who are still in disarray and heavily criticized by the population for not explaining why a huge cache of highly flammable ammonium nitrate was being stored at the port and why greater precautions were not taken to prevent its explosion.
The blast Aug. 4 left some 200 people dead, more than 6,000 injured and hundreds of thousands homeless. The country's economy already was under siege and was worsening because of the coronavirus pandemic.
"I am deeply troubled to see the suffering and anguish that has sapped the native resilience and resourcefulness of the Land of the Cedars," the pope wrote in his Christmas letter. "It is even more painful to see you deprived of your precious aspirations to live in peace and to continue being, for our time and our world, a message of freedom and a witness to harmonious coexistence."
Pope Francis told the people he felt the "gravity of your loss" and "I hope to visit as soon as possible," but urged them to show the same steadfastness that has led the country out of previous crises and civil war.
"Yours is the identity of a people which does not abandon its homes and its heritage, the identity of a people which refuses to renounce the dream of those who believed in the future of a beautiful and prosperous country," he told them.
The pope quoted from the reading from Isaiah read at Masses on Christmas night: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light." For Christians, he said, Christ is "the light that lessens our fears and instills in each of us the sure hope that God's providence will never abandon Lebanon and will turn this time of sadness to good."
"In the Bible," he said, "the majestic cedar symbolizes steadfastness, stability and protection. The cedar symbolizes the righteous who are deeply rooted in the Lord, a sign of beauty and prosperity, standing tall and bearing abundant fruit even in old age."
Christmas celebrates the fact that "Emmanuel, God-with-us, becomes our neighbor walking at our side," the pope said. "Trust in his presence and his faithfulness."
"May the star of Bethlehem be your guide and a source of encouragement, so that you may come to understand more fully God's plan, and so lose neither your way nor your hope," he said.
Addressing Lebanon's political and religious leaders, Pope Francis used a quote from Maronite Patriarch Elias Hoyek, a leading voice for Lebanon's independence in the early 1900s: "You who are heads of the country, judges of the earth, deputies of the people, who act on their behalf ... are obliged, in your official capacity and according to your responsibilities, to seek the best interest of the public. Your time should not be dedicated to pursuing your own gain, your action is not for yourselves, but for the state and the nation you represent."
And the pope asked the international community to take steps to "help Lebanon to stand apart from conflicts and regional tensions. Let us help Lebanon to surmount this grave crisis and resume a normal existence."