My first Christmas in Kisumu town, Kenya, is fixed in my memory even though it was 42 years ago (one of the most unsettling aspects of growing older is that memories half a century ago seem like yesterday, while what happened last week can sometimes be hazy and/or confused).
Before I proceed with my story, I need to mention that it was seriously hot that year, with temperatures rising well into the thirties.
I remember being simply homesick, for as I have often mentioned, though the welcome from the people of Kisumu parish was overwhelming, those deeply ingrained Christmas expectations came flooding back.
Christmas in Kisumu
When we are homesick, we tend to cling to the trappings of our own home culture in order to connect with, well, home. My first thought was a tree. ‘If only I could have a Christmas tree in the parish house,’ I naively thought, ‘that would do it for me.’
After some discreet enquiries, a kind soul cut a branch from a tree that looked something like a Christmas tree. I put it in a large pot. Someone else gave me some homemade decorations, and I put cotton wool on the branches, endlessly explaining to bewildered visitors that this was snow, not fruit. This was the last time I attempted this exercise in Kisumu!
Christmas Day came. We had Masses on the hour, every hour, from 6am until midday. The cathedral was packed at every Mass and by 1pm several thousand people had come to celebrate the joyful message of Christmas, that God-is-with-us in the person of Jesus Christ until the end of time.
However, what I really remember is a funeral Mass I was asked to celebrate on Boxing Day. A young mother and child had died, both taken by tetanus after a birth at home.
The sight of two coffins, one large, one small, one on top of the other accompanied by a distraught, grieving family was stark contrast to the joy of the previous day. That image has stayed with me to this day.
William Blake, the poet, once wrote:
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul Divine,
Under every grief and pine,
Runs a joy with silken twine.
I understand Fr Timothy Radcliffe when he says:
‘So when I am told that I must be extremely happy because Jesus loves me, almost as if it were a duty, excluding the possibility of any sadness, it sounds like a fake joy to me.’
The difficulty of joy
There is a multitude of people across our world who ‘under every grief and pine’ will find it hard to find joy at this time. The people of Gaza, including several hundred Christians sheltering in the two churches there, will find it very difficult to be joyful. Gaza – through which, as tradition has it, the Holy Family travel on their way to Egypt to escape persecution.
The families of those murdered or taken as hostages by the Hamas terrorist organisation will not be able to find anything to celebrate.
People driven out of Myanmar into a refugee camp in northern Thailand, which I visited recently, will celebrate Christmas again, hoping that someone will hear their cries for a home somewhere in the world.
And there will be some of us reading this who will struggle to find joy in this season because of memories of loss and current travail.
I am now inclined to believe that HOPE is a much better word to describe the meaning of Christmas, and perhaps of the whole Christmas message.
Fr Tomas Halik wrote that:
‘hope, however small and incomprehensible, is the chink through which the still, small voice of God’s message can reach us; hope that we are in the company of the one who has the words of eternal life.’
The power of love
The power of God’s love for us all is unstoppable. God stands with all of us in our joys and in our sufferings, in our doubts, in our fears, and with our regrets, and even with those who reject him.
As missionary disciples we are called to stand with those who are the victims of injustice, violence, poverty, oppression, and all manner of evil. We stand with them to give them hope, not some vain wish, but the words of life – now and for eternity.
By being part of the Missio family – through your prayers, donations, and engagement – you too can stand in solidarity with those who truly need this message of hope. Hope rooted in the birth, life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s Son.
Speaking to young people on World Youth Day this year, the Holy Father summed it all up in the following words:
‘Christian hope is no facile optimism, no placebo for the credulous. It is the certainty, rooted in love and faith, that God never abandons us and remains faithful to his promise: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me”.’
I wish you a happy and hope-filled celebration of Christmas. By the grace of God and our untiring efforts, may 2024 bring us peace with justice throughout the world.
Links and stories from this month’s eNews
Children living in Chennai already face many challenges including poverty and displacement. But we have just heard from our partner, Sister Nirmala, that a new, more immediate threat has engulfed them in the form of Cyclone Michaung.
Digital Missionaries – helping to ignite God’s love online
We were delighted to see our online Advent Calendar being used to great effect in schools via Twitter (X).
School tweets are a really valuable way of promoting our material across the country. If you are active on social media, please do share and if possible tag us via: