Bosigong kwa Bethlehem,
Ke bomang mo ‘sakeng?
Bo-Maria le Josef bat eng
Le ngwanyana yo ba mmonyeng,
Yo o tswang ‘godimong.
This is not a random set of Sotho words or phrases. This is not a poem or some kind of Sotho saying. This is the first stanza of the song “Silent Night” in Sotho, Hymn number 15 in our ELCSA hymnal. It may look daunting, but give singing it a try, (don’t worry about your pronunciations, I struggled in the beginning just the same.)
Singing songs like this in church, in a completely foreign language to me, reinforces South Africa’s motto, ‘Unity in Diversity.’ This powerful term not only refers to the people, cultures and societal norms of the country, but also to the Lutheran church. As the ELCA and ELCSA share many of the same hymns, creeds and prayers, there are also many ways in which the churches differ from each other. For instance, at my home congregation, offering is given by somberly passing a plate down your pew. Here, offering is a celebration and people dance up the aisle, singing praises of thanks to God for being able to offer some of their money to the church. And while there are many similar and contrasting aspects of church at home and in South Africa, I began to think of the differences during Christmas.
For the majority of us, Christmas in America means Santa Claus, decorations and lights, Christmas cookies, popular Christmas songs, and a myriad of family traditions. Christmas in America really seems to last over a month, as many store decorations and TV commercials would suggest. Our capitalist society has commercialized the most significant Biblical occurrence of our time. And as time goes on and years pass by, have we lost the foundations for what Christmas is really about? Do we stretch our traditions and celebrations too far into the secular world and away from our core Christian beliefs?
Let’s pause for a moment. Recently I have been thinking a lot about Christmas and the holiday season, trying to make sense of it all. And it was truly hard to connect the dots.
Let’s start with good ‘ol Saint Nick. What a strange, mysterious, inconspicuous man he is. An old, yet never-aging, man who routinely conducts in burglary and breaking and entering each holiday season. Besides the North Pole, Santa visits shopping malls more than anywhere else, perhaps so he can pick up those gifts that his elves can’t produce in his shop. And Santa has been climate-aware for some time, as his Reindeer surely don’t produce the amount of emissions many of our gas guzzling SUV’s do. But what is the point of Santa Claus? Where did this odd custom and tradition come from? Without a quick Wikipedia search, I’m sure the majority of us would have no idea on the origins of Santa Claus.
Despite Santa being a stranger, I always loved him. And it’s a good thing growing up I always had a chimney because I always felt bad for the kids who weren’t getting presents due to their lack of chimney accessibility. And I have to be honest, I probably found myself praying more to Santa Claus asking him for the newest gaming system than I did praying to God.
In addition to my love for Santa, I have a love of cookies. I love cookies so much I could probably live off them, but then I’d most likely accumulate the gut, hypertension and rosy-red cheeks of Santa himself. And I always loved our Christmas tree. I loved the smell of a newly cut Douglas fir or other conifer tree, standing in the corner of our living room, shining bright and sparkling from the assortment of ornaments on it. I never did love carrying the tree up the stairs into the house, watering the tree or cleaning up all the fallen needles. I was never really fond of our dogs and cats knocking it over, either. Nonetheless, I loved seeing that tree with gifts under it each Christmas morning. But I suppose I never stopped and thought to myself, “Why are we putting a tree in our house? Did I miss something in Matthew that said “Thy must place tree in house to show one’s love for Christ?”
Don’t get me wrong, I love the American Christmas traditions as much as the next person. But what my Christmas in South Africa has taught me is in order to remember the real reasons we celebrate Christmas, I had to live Christmas differently. My Christmas here was one of simplistic beauty, of pure jubilation for the birth of our Savior and of giving thanks to God for sending only Son to us. Being in the Southern Hemisphere changed what I came to associate Christmas with. Instead of bundling up and wishing for a white Christmas, I threw on my shades and enjoyed eating our meal outside in the summer Sun. There was no Christmas tree, no outside lights, no cookies, and no Santa. There was happiness, love of family and love of Jesus. Everything I had come to know and associate with Christmas was different.
My coordinator, Brian Konkol, shared a quote with us on Christmas day from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Jesus stands at the door and knocks, in complete reality…He confronts you in every person you meet. He walks on the Earth as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you, and makes his demands. That is the great seriousness and great blessedness of the Advent message. Christ stands at the door. He lives in the form of the person in our midst.”
This is what so many of us seem to forget at Christmas. This is the reality of the holiday, and what it’s truly about. As I continue to meet new people each and every day, I must carry this message of Christmas along with me. And as I am a lover of tradition and whole-heartedly enjoy the Christmas festivities, I don’t believe there should be an end to them. However, I challenge you as I continue to challenge myself, to stop and think at times, and ponder how relevant our actions may be to Christ. In the midst of preparing Christmas dinner or driving from mall to mall, or stressing over material things we want, we should stop and thank God for the truly best Christmas gift of all, Christ Jesus.
This blog entry was written for the ELCA MUD3 blog, which can be viewed at: http://elcamud.blogspot.com/