At the beginning of December, I asked God how it could possibly feel anything like Christmas at all, way over here in China.
And my prayer was answered.
My church’s Christmas activities, from a modern Christmas cantata to the classic live nativity, the lighting of the advent candles to the hanging of the greens, were especially meaningful this year. Suzhou International Fellowship (or SIF) has such a diverse, multicultural congregation that, during these different programs, I often heard about Christmas traditions from other parts of the world.
Some Swedish friends told me about Lutfisk – a fish preserved in sodium hydroxide for most of the year that is blanched before being eaten on Christmas.
Friends from Mexico talked about Nochebuena celebrations with friends and family lasting well into the early hours of Christmas Day.
Most of China doesn’t really recognize Christmas, and for the non-Christian people of China who do celebrate, it’s mainly a shopping holiday. The recent tradition of gifting apples on Christmas Eve, because of the way the word “apple” sounds like the word “peace” in Mandarin, inspired a Chinese friend to warn me that on Christmas Eve apples are very expensive or hard to find!
After a beautiful Christmas Eve service on Sunday morning and my weekly Bible Study small group’s Christmas gift exchange, I was able to spend Christmas morning with a family; unwrapping presents, playing games, and building the new Lego kits the children had just received. This was all such a blessing and really made the holiday away from home feel like “real” Christmas time.
But honestly, for me, Christmas really came in a moment of quiet reflection.
While re-reading Luke 2 alone, after the bustle had subsided, I realized it’s really not a happy, simple story!
In a tense political environment of foreign military occupation, despite the reasonable skepticism of Jesus’ soon-to-be extended family faced with the human impossibility of the Immaculate Conception, after the treacherous 100-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, in the hopeless vulnerability of Mary and Joseph’s homelessness, the Messiah was born.
The solitude and social isolation of the shepherds contrasted against the majesty of the Seekers from the East at the manger should remind us of the ongoing struggle against classism and growing economic inequality around the world and in the USA; and how whole-heartedly seeking Jesus can lead us all to the same shared space of humility in God’s presence.
Jesus’ early years spent as a refugee in a foreign country after his family narrowly escaped a threatened ruler’s violent decree sounds a lot like modern humanitarian crises such as the tragic violence in Syria and the exploitation of Africans who are enslaved by human traffickers promising transport to asylum in Europe but who instead are sold by traffickers as day laborers in Libya.
Obviously, it is a happy story for believers because it is the start of the New Covenant with God that allow us to be adopted as brothers and sisters of and in Christ, but those tangible social justice issues of Women’s Health and Human Rights, international refugees and migration, attacks against Human Rights and specifically the Rights of the Child by the politically powerful, all intersect in the story of God’s radical love unleashed on the world through the miracle of the birth of Jesus Christ.
The Christmas story is miraculous because of the ways God divinely intervenes and inspires each person that we read about in the varying Gospel accounts. But it is also miraculous because person after person chooses to follow God from the place where she or he is familiar to where the going is not easy and even into where it’s most dangerous.
Re-reading this story again this year, I was struck by the fact that Jesus was also, in those early moments, the fruition of what must have been the most challenging months of Mary’s life up to that point. Physically, socially, and politically, both she and Joseph, and their extended families, would have been completely disrupted because of this miraculous, but still unplanned, pregnancy.
Socially, physically, politically, each person in the Christmas story put a lot at risk to fulfill her or his role in the Greatest Story Ever Told. In the midst of all of this striving and difficulty and doubt, there was enduring faithfulness and eventually profoundest joy through the coming of the Savior.
In the first moments of what would become Jesus’ Earth-shaking and history-making life, He was already present and extraordinary as our cosmic, omnipotent Messiah made flesh at that specific time for the ongoing salvation of this world. But he was also something else extraordinary too: a baby. God’s infinite authority and power made even more precious to us because of His human fragility and accessibility after the months and months of Mary’s complicated pregnancy.
Arriving to change the world in the form of an ordinary miracle, the Christ Child invites us once again to embrace Love, Joy, Peace, and Hope like never before.
Just like the people of the Christmas story, we have the opportunity to be part of what God started with creation, fulfilled through Christ, and continues doing today. Through our everyday decisions, God’s Kingdom can be built if we are sensitive to the nudging of The Spirit that inspires us to act in ways that may be dangerous to our comfortable lives.
But this is the way to live out the Christmas story, not just as a holiday at the end of December, but instead as a call to action from the God we serve all the time, who reminds us in Proverbs 31:8-9 that it is our job to, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,/ for the rights of all who are destitute/ Speak up and judge fairly;/ defend the rights of the poor and needy.”’
Thank you for keeping up with my blog posts and email blasts, which I will be sending out monthly. If my story connects with you, I encourage you to join me on my journey as a missionary! Please visit my Support page for more information on how to be part of my call to engage with local communities, connect the church in mission, and grow in personal and social holiness.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!