My best friends are in Uganda right now, have been gone for months and don’t know for sure when they will be back. One year ago my friend told me she would do anything for God–except give up all her possessions and move to Africa. Now, here she is, with her husband, creating a home and a life, hardships paling in comparison to the sharp taste of living out their true story. My friends have already opened a few care packages from home, the only vestige of a Western Christmas they might have. In the pictures, my best friends look sunburnt, exhausted, joyful. I look, jealously, at their contentment.
In a few days I will see my brother-in-law again, when my entire family gets together for Christmas day. He will be happy, of course, swallowed up in the craziness that is our tribe, but he will also look wistful. He is from Sudan, and he will be missing home. I will ask him to tell me again how he used to celebrate the day, and I will be changed by his descriptions of Christmas: times of joy, prayer, celebration, expectation. All-night parties centered in community and faith. The waiting of Advent already written into every-day life, the day of Christ’s birth is monumental, life-changing, altering. People singing, arms outstretched, ready for their deliverer.
I listen as someone underwater, I look as someone through a glass; it feels as though this way of celebrating is not for me. I cannot imagine a December with no presents, lights, or trees. I need my TV specials, my beloved mashed potatoes and ham, and even my acts of Christmas charity, allowing me to feel good and just. I don’t cling to them so much as shrug my shoulders and give up the fight. This is my reality, the crush of consumerism and materialism my cross to bear. And I am ok with this, I think, until I catch a glimpse of how others experience the incarnation.
For a people who are suffering, the baby is more than a baby. The story is less of a story, the flame of Advent less waxy, more fierce and hot. The stakes are much higher, a new kingdom is urgently needed. But most of all, there is joy. There is dancing, proclamation, communal longing made realized. And arms outstretched, people all around the world take Jesus just as he came, a suffering servant. And they love him, fiercly. They die for him, a thousand times over. They live for him, their own comforts and pleasures playing second fiddle.
I hear them, everywhere. All hail the refugee king! The one who knows what it is like to be displaced, to flee violence, to live in the threat of death and worse. All hail the refugee king! All around the world, people are ready for the new kingdom. It is only good news to them, this year of Jubilee; they are the poor, the broken hearted, the sick and the lame. Jesus always said it was to them the good news would be preached, and it would be counted as a miracle.
But to everyone else, he said, watch out. See that you do not stumble because of me, see that you are not offended. And I read that, and think: well, I would never.
And then I allow myself to ask the question; how many miracles have I seen lately? And then: which side, exactly, am I on?
Ever since I was a child, my most precious tradition was to wait until everyone in my family had gone to sleep and sneak out into the living room. I would sit, small and still, in front of the lights of the trees, and I would have my O Holy Night moment–a time for me to be alone with Jesus, in the crush of all the clamour. As an adult, with my own family now, I still have to fight for those moments. I still wait until everyone is fast asleep, the computers and phones shut off, to creep into my living room. My tree is now pink, electric, fake, whimsical. This year, as I settle in for a good holy chat, I realize I don’t want to sit anymore, alone with my thoughts and Jesus.
What I really want to do is dance. I want to sing, and laugh, and cry—and experience the joy of deliverance. I want to know why Jesus came, and why it was important, and know that it impacts my life right now.
I want to hail the refugee king.
But I stumble, so. I don’t want the pain of resettling my life, just for the sake of the miracles of the kingdom. I have been busy, all these years, making my house warm and safe and comfortable. But my savior was born to the opposite, and lived his life that way too. And as the distance grows ever wider, I am forced to choose. Stay on this side of the glass, wistful, longing for more, but safe and happy and sound in sleep—or live for the deaf and the lame and the blind and the oppressed, have the good news preached to me by the poor. And it doesn’t have to be Uganda, or the Sudan, or Haiti (unless that is where I am supposed to go). But there is something about being with people who have had everything taken from them, to experience how Jesus comes to them. There is something to be said for making ones life mirror those of our refugee brothers and sisters, for purposefully putting ourselves in the places of darkness, loneliness, the abandoned places of the Empire.
The choice seems obvious, laid out like that by Jesus himself. I can be the one who experiences miracles, or I can be the one who is offended by them. Don’t I want to experience Christ in all of his miraculous glory, singing and dancing in the dust and the grime, that holy infant born a stateless wanderer, able to identify with all our sufferings? Isn’t it worth it to give up what he has asked me to? Don’t I want his coming to be good news to me, instead of a stumbling block?
I stare at the pink tree, the glittering lights, and I know what I want.
All hail the refugee king.