by Carol Friesen, TAP Member Care Coordinator
“So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem, the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.” (Luke 2:2-5)
Christmas conjures up different images and memories often depending upon where you lived as a child. For me, growing up in New England, I remember snow covered streets, trips to Boston to see the big window displays at Jordan Marsh, the well worn manger scene coming out for display and the fun of the family gathering and opening presents! Amidst the feasting and gift giving, I easily lost sight of the starkness of that first Christmas. Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem and there Mary giving birth without the comforts of home and the support of extended family.
In 1984 Paul and I spent our first Christmas “away from home” in Bangkok. I was very pregnant with our second child and Hannah was just two years old. With our growing, but very imperfect Thai language skills (we were still in language school), we experienced the meaning of Christmas in new ways that year. As we gathered with our Thai brothers and sisters to worship on Christmas Day, we learned that worshiping on December 25th whether or not it happens to fall on a Sunday is a common practice around the world. We discovered, too, that our own tradition of gift giving (family and friends had sent us lots of packages from the States) was a bit “over the top” in comparison with our colleagues from Europe and other countries. And, most importantly, we realized that living as strangers in a strange land was perhaps a more accurate portrait of the first Christmas than what we had experienced previously. As missionaries, we embraced an incarnational model and sought to adapt our lifestyle and our message to the culture in which we lived. In subsequent years, that would mean our family Christmas tree would be relegated to the most private of spaces to correct any prevailing misconceptions. (No, Christians don’t worship the Christmas tree!) Gathering with other believers would become the cornerstone of our Christmas celebration.
Paul and I no longer live as “strangers in a strange land.” (Or do we? Texas is not much like New England!) On a more serious note, as American Christians continue to experience the waning of Christendom (the religious culture that has dominated the western world since the 4th century), we as followers of Jesus Christ are increasingly being called to live counterculturally. In doing so, we face the challenge of discerning what it means to follow Christ as a people living in exile. What traditions should we foster to celebrate Christmas even as we anticipate Jesus coming again? How can we reach out in love to the strangers in our midst to share the love of the One whose incarnation we celebrate? Advent is a wonderful time to ponder these questions even as we remember Christmases past and joyfully anticipate the One to come.