Joy of Christmas hides gruesome price many Christians pay for faith
In the run-up to Christmas, there is the sobering thought that this year over 15,000 people have been killed worldwide in nearly 1,700 terrorist attacks closely associated with sectarianism and political upheaval.
Last Sunday morning, when many of us were enjoying traditional carol services in our local churches, 25 Christians were killed in an Isis bomb blast at a cathedral in Cairo.
There was a special poignancy surrounding the Cairo bloodshed, because Egypt was the country to which the Holy Family fled after the birth of Jesus to escape from the infanticide of the villainous Herod.
The death of the members of the ancient Coptic Church made headlines for a day or two, but the story was soon buried under the weight of other news .
People might feel that these tragedies are so far away, but are they?
In our own blood-spattered history, the violence against people because of their religion is clear for all to see.
One of the most horrific aspects of the Kingsmills massacre was the way in which the attackers singled out the sole Catholic workman during the ambush on a lonely road in early January 1976.
They told the Catholic man to run for his life and then they shot the Protestants. Only Alan Black survived, with scars to this day.
The night before, five Catholics were shot dead at Whitecross in south Armagh and at Ballydugan in Co Down.
Several years later, not far away in Darkley, south Armagh, a Pentecostal church was attacked by rogue Irish National Liberation Army gunmen, posing as the Catholic Reaction Force. Three people were shot dead and seven were wounded because they were Protestants.
During the Troubles, many Catholics also died simply because of their religion, whether at the gruesome hands of the Shankill Butchers or in McGurk's Bar in Belfast and other pubs where Catholics were customers.
The list goes on and on, and even today the legacy of the victims of violence continues to be one of the most insoluble problems facing our politicians.
In my many travels I have also encountered people who have been punished simply for being Christians.
In South Korea, I attended services held in secret because of fear of being found out by the authorities.
In South Sudan, I went to rehearsals for a Christmas carol service led by an eccentric American doctor-missionary, and every time I hear the ancient and beautiful carol O come, O come Emmanuel, I am reminded of the peril of many African Christians.
However, one of the most inspiring aspects of these visits was to notice how these persecuted Christians took their faith so seriously and how it sustained them in times of great danger and difficulty.
All of which places our celebration of Christmas in a different perspective.
The true message has been buried by a huge mass of commercialism, where so many people are out to make money from what should be a purely religious celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus.
Despite this, the light of Christianity has not been snuffed out by the darkness of secularism, or by the violent opposition of militant Islamists who want to conquer all that the Christmas story stands for.
Thankfully, there is still much to enjoy in our Western Christmas, where kindness, friendship and family solidarity are still evident in so many ways.
However, the story of the massacre of innocent worshippers in Cairo last Sunday is a reminder that so many people all over the world pay a price, greater or lesser, for being a practising Christian, including the proprietors of Ashers or those people who are prohibited from wearing religious jewellery in the workplace.
The Christmas story starts with joy and hope, but at its heart is the reality of what it costs to be a true Christian in modern society.
And not just for a season of celebration, but for a lifetime - and beyond that.