“Hotel Ubuntu. Bonjour.”
“Bonjour. Est-ce que vous ette… um… Je voudrais… er… sigh. I was just calling to see if you were open.”
“Oui, oui, monsieur. We are open.”
Now, I can only describe the tone of voice with which my query was answered. It wasn’t cheery or helpful, nor was it mean or resentful. The tone carried with it an underlying message.
It said, “Why on earth wouldn’t we be open?!?”
Which brings me to the heart of my (somewhat tardy) posting for this, my first Christmas away from the candy canes, commercials, and cold fronts of Indiana. Growing up, I had a constant sense of anticipation for Christmas morning. My siblings and I once snuck downstairs in the wee hours of the morning just to see the presents under the tree. We fell asleep in the glow of my mother’s spectacular annual arboreal creation, restless with excitement for the daylight and the sound of ripping paper. As I got older and older, I slept later and later, but I always had a sense that Christmas was coming, and just in case I would forget, the stores and TV ads made sure to remind me.
But here, in Burundi, my observation has been that Christmas looks quite a bit different than in the States. Walk around the city like Karri and I did on the 25th and the shops will be open, the vendors will be out, a lot of people will be working. Maybe they can’t afford to close; maybe they’re just used to working on holidays. And there are loads of holidays in Bujumbura, holidays for Christians, holidays for Muslims, holidays celebrating military victories, holidays commemorating political assassinations. Christmas falls right in line with the rest of them, maybe with a bit of a shot in the arm for commerce in light of some extra gift giving. But the celebration isn’t broadcast in neon lights like back west. Burundians will go to church (if they’re Christian) on Christmas Eve and possibly Christmas morning. They’ll have a meal with their family, exchange some gifts, and that’ll be it. The big celebration, so I was told by one Burundian friend, is New Years, which I am really excited to see.
Now, I questioned why, in a country that is predominantly Christian, the celebration of the birth of the King of Kings is regarded as a second class citizen to the purchasing of a new calendar. But perhaps the truth of the matter is that the celebration just doesn’t look like what I’m used to. And what am I used to? I’m used to noise. I’m used to motion-activated pine trees that gyrate and sing “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree.” I’m used to a constant barrage of commercials that insist that what I’ve purchased for my loved ones is sub-par compared to this lovely set of steak knives. I’m used to the sound of the masses squeezed together at the doors of Wal-mart, planning the most efficient circuit around the store, only to be squeezed together all over again at the checkout lines. I’m used to all that noise, leading up to an evening spent with my fellow believers, lighting a candle and singing what carol? That’s right, kids. “Silent Night.”
Karri and I went through an advent reading schedule this year. We spent the month leading up to Christmas reading Scripture each day, psalms of joy, prophecies of hope, promises of peace, and celebrations of love. Advent, which means “arrival,” has been celebrated for centuries in the church as a way to prepare our hearts for the coming Messiah, and by joining in that tradition, we connected our hearts with the hearts of the people Jesus was born into. These were people who were desperate. They were brokenhearted. They needed hope, joy, and peace because they had none. And their prayers were the lines we occasionally sing this time of year.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lowly exile here
Until the son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel
I was invited to speak at a Burundian friend’s house church two weeks ago. Karri and I sat in the living room of a woman whose husband worked on another continent to support their four children. My friend pointed to two girls who desperately wanted Bibles but couldn’t afford them. And then I met Sandrene. Sandrene is a widow, and the mother of five children, and is HIV positive. She looked at us with tears welling in her eyes and told us she had been asking God who was going to take care of her children when she dies. And she felt God say to her, “You children will not be abandoned, because I am their Father.” I opened the Bible to Luke 3 and read to this small group of believers, “Fear not, for I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people. For unto you in the City of David, a Savior has been born, and He is Christ, the Lord.” And I told them that their hearts and the hearts of those people who cried out for Emmanuel in Israel two thousand years ago are one and the same. Christmas means that hope has come for the hopeless, joy for those filled with sorrow, peace for the embattled, fearful, and broken. And I saw Sandrene close her watering eyes and nod.
Christmas has been more real to me here than ever before. Now, I desperately miss my family and I miss the snow and I miss the candles and “Silent Night.” And I don’t want this to come across as a rebuke of Christmas in America. It’s easy to say “Well, Christmas is just too commercial. We need to get back to the true meaning.” Normally, all that conversation prompts is a nice, hearty helping of guilt along with your Christmas turkey. But this year, I got to share Christmas with a people who are looking for hope all the time. I got to look at the birth of the King through the eyes of Sandrene, and without all the noise, my ears were clear enough to hear her crying out for Emmanuel, God with us. And in each of our countries, cities, neighborhoods, families, there are Sandrenes. There are people who need hope, joy, and peace. Maybe if we lifted our voices like the angels before, declaring the birth of a Savior for all people above the din of the other noises, they’d be filled with wonder like the shepherds long ago.
So Merry Christmas, Joyeaux Noel, and Noeli Nziza to you and yours. May you be filled with hope, joy, peace, and love as the Messiah enters your world, and may you be the heralds of good news of great joy to the Sandrenes all around you.
Let earth receive her king.