Christmas, December 2019
“The birth of Jesus is basic to all that can be said or done about Christmas – Write Fr. Felix from Sudan, where he has been serving as a missionary for many years -. At the same time, from what I see I am more and more convinced that, with Christmas having become so secularized, we run the risk of stopping at the surface with very beautiful celebrations but ending up calling Christmas what really is not. The essential is missing. The honoree is missing. Baby Jesus is missing.” We publish here the missionary’s letter titled, “Where Baccalà Rules.”
Where Baccalà (*) Rules
Christmas is still far away by I hear all around that it is getting closer, it is coming. It is a time of the year in which we just must give way to imagination as we search for beauty, light and contemplation. Outside, in the streets, the cold notwithstanding, people stop to see the decorations, the colorful lights and the packed shop windows. There is snow, real or artificial, in front of your eyes or under your feet, while at home, where it is warm, the family gathers around the traditional table where baccalà rules supreme and delicacies and sweets abound. There may even be a good beer. Then there is the tree and Santa Claus with his white beard and the bag full of gifts. And, finally you have the Wise Men, these exotic and peculiar folks who, crossing the desert, will arrive in Bethlehem riding camels… Well, in the place where I live as a missionary, Sudan, I do not need imagination: Desert and camels here are at home. “And what about the Baby? A Christmas filled with everything and he is not even mentioned? What a mistake!”
I can already hear your grumbling. It is OK. It means you thought of it and this is what I want. You are now involved. Best wishes! In fact, the Birth of Jesus is basic to all that can be said and done about Christmas. The customs and traditions born over time and new ones being added in time and space contribute to make us live in a positive way the Christmas festivities. At the same time, from what I see I am more and more convinced that, with Christmas having become so secularized, we run the risk of stopping at the surface with very beautiful celebrations but ending up calling Christmas what really is not. The essential is missing. The honoree is missing. Baby Jesus is missing.
I am a fan of full joy and celebration. But what is the meaning of a creche with a beautiful grotto if the Baby is simply a fragile little statue without impact and with no connection to our lives? In this connection, I would like to tell you about something that happened to me some years ago in Nyala, in Darfur, with a group of young friends gathered around the crib. At a certain point, I picked up the baby Jesus and told them: “He was born for me and for you. But he does not want us to stand in awe and look at him. Jesus has been given a path by the Father. Let us walk with the Christmas Child. As for me, this is why I came to Darfur and I am here today with you.”
Miriam, one of the girls, a Christian sympathizer who wanted to be baptized, was very confused. Her voice almost sounded like a reproach: “Abuna, father, is it really this why you left your country? I have a hard time believing that in your country Christmas is not much more beautiful than here Sudan.” And to show what she knew about it, she added: “I saw some Christmas celebration on a TV program… it was all very beautiful, impossible to duplicate it here in our country. I am not sure but I think that in the show there was also a Baby Jesus.”
The reaction of the group was as expected. Miriam was very far from knowing the meaning of a Christian Christmas. I understand that, not being Christian, she could only speak of Christmas as a show you may find on a random TV channel. But I would truly be sad and worried if the same words were to be voiced by a Christian. At that moment I made eye contact with Henry, a Sudanese theology seminarian. He seemed to be deep in thought and a little worried. I knew him as a responsible young man, full of faith. I felt I knew what he was thinking. After a while he said: “When I was a child, I used to love to listen to my parents telling the story of the birth of Jesus in great detail. My mother used to repeat it often and she gave the impression that all that she wanted to teach me was right there. Later, in the seminary, I learned that the celebration of Easter is, without a doubt, superior to Christmas. I also learned why: Resurrection is the culmination of Christian faith. One day, I shared this discovery with her. Wise words, that I treasure down to this day, came from her mouth. Never lose sight of the Child of Bethlehem whom his mother Mary placed in a manger. Accompany him always in his words and deeds… until the day when he dies on the cross and lead us to the Easter of Resurrection. Forgive me if I made you wait up to today to reveal you this supreme truth. I did it on purpose, so that you would have it clearly implanted in your mind that Jesus was truly born in this world of ours, as a human being, and then journeyed to his own death and resurrection. Because there are people, my son, who deny the incarnation of Jesus. They deny his humanity. They deny Christmas.”
I have never met Henry’s mother, but I resonate with her. God took flesh in Jesus. Human among human. And he moved on to the great day, that Sunday when the manger turned into a tomb. An empty tomb. And in that instant, Easter happened. He was born for you and for me. For all. Woe to us if we lose sight of the child in the manger. Let us walk with him towards Easter Sunday, where salvation awaits us. This is why missionaries go out. They want to invite their fellow human beings to walk on the road to Salvation offered to us by Christmas and Easter. It is true that in the joy of Christmas we already foresee the joy of Easter.
Fr. Feliz da Costa Martins
El Obeid, Sudan
(*) Baccalà is salted cod fish. In some parts of Portugal, Italy and other countries Baccalà is a typical dish usually served on Christmas Eve.