I recall a very special Christmas: my first Christmas in southern Sudan, where I served as a Maryknoll lay missioner.
This was going to be my first Christmas with the Toposa people of southern Sudan. We had spent the weeks of Advent truly preparing for Christmas as I had never prepared before. Along with Fr. Tim, with whom I was serving, I had been invited by a local catechist to visit an extremely remote village in a mountainous region of South Sudan. We were being asked to visit this very small village of Moru-kwap to celebrate Christmas. We prepared our catechists with a very special retreat, sharing the Christmas story, practicing Christmas hymns, and reflecting on the meaning of Christmas in the context of this nomadic, cattle-herding community. I felt we were really for Christmas, or that I was ready for Christmas, but all my preparations had NOT prepared me for my first Toposa Christmas.
After an extremely rough, day-long journey, I arrived in Moru-kwap to learn that this was not merely my first Christmas praying together with this community, but this would be this village’s first Christmas as well. Yes, this truly was their first Christmas too.
It was a truly simple, yet beautiful, Christmas vigil. We gathered with the local people under the stars that incredible night. It was a miraculous starry night in which those stars seemed especially bright and close as we gathered in this remote corner of southern Sudan with about two hundred people around a bonfire to hear a simple story. It was a story which they had never heard.
In order to assist with the sharing of this story, we decided to proclaim the story by word along with the aid of a few simple slides projected with the help of our car battery. We began the telling of the story with an image of a young, pregnant woman riding on a donkey, which was being led by her husband in search of a place to stay, a place where the woman could give birth. It seemed the story resonated with these nomadic, cattle-herding people who are continually on the move themselves.
We continued the story with a second image of the couple finding a place of lodging among animals—among cattle, goats, and donkeys—for there was nowhere else for them to stay. No other place for this woman to give birth to her son. As we shared this image of Mary and Joseph taking refuge in a manager, we could hear the lowing of the community’s own animals in the background just yards away. For this was truly a story much like their own, as every night these people slept with their animals as well.
As I projected the third image of the manger scene of a mother and her newborn child, a great joy erupted among the people. They broke into spontaneous dancing and singing. For the next 20 minutes or more, the men, women, and children, the young and the old—everyone—broke into singing and dancing. YES, dancing with joy around the fire with such amazing happiness. Everyone sang praises at the marvel of the birth of this little child. They literally were jumping up and down filled with joy. They embraced one another and truly celebrated the gift of life in the birth of this child. These people expressed a profound happiness at the good news of the birth of the Christ child.
“For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord… And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest.'”
What joy and happiness on this Christmas day…for the birth of a Christ child, for God with us…God truly present in our life…for God comes today as a child to be with us.
The Toposa people’s profound joy that first Christmas has humbled and transformed my Christmases ever since. May we too celebrate the good news of the Christ child breaking forth in the mundane and otherwise ordinariness of a day…
For God comes in the glory of the birth of a child…
A God that comes…
comes to be with us…
to become one of us…again this Christmas.
And for this we wholeheartedly rejoice!
Scripture reflection for Christmas Day 2019 for the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns.
Public domain photo from pxhere.