Thursday, January 3, 2013

Joy to the World

The experience of Christmas this year in South Sudan was an incredible gift of joy.  It was, needless to say, so vastly unlike any Christmas I have ever celebrated in the past.  Of all that I have seen and experienced, and I am left with three simple thoughts to share.  These are my three little flowers of Christmas.

1.  A Little Flower of Simplicity
This Christmas I was stripped of almost everything that has defined Christmas for me for the past 24 years of my life.  I hardly missed the exaggerated, commercial aspects of the season, except for the opportunity to give gifts to the ones I love.  (And I might miss Target a tiny bit...)  As we drew closer to Christmas day, without the traditional decorations and lights lining the streets or the Christmas songs on the radio, in addition to the steaming hot weather, it hardly felt like Christmas at all.  On the big day, there were no baked goods, no steaming mac & cheese or baked ham from Granny's kitchen, and there was only one, small Christmas tree, which we placed in the church.  Overall, the most significant absence this year, unquestionably, were those people I love so much, and not being surrounded by family and friends to celebrate one of the greatest feasts of the year was particularly difficult. 

Yet from this great void of typical holiday traditions arose an experience of profound beauty.  Having stripped away all the usual and familiar customs, I was able to experience Christmas solely for what it is: The coming of Christ.   He was the center of our celebration and the source of our joy here in South Sudan.  The festivities began with Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, soon after followed by rising for mass on Christmas Day—all the faithful were present for both.  Singing and dancing filled both masses from start to finish, all the carols in Zande language and with full excitement and enthusiasm from everyone present.  The parishioners stayed for hours after mass, beating the drums and continuing the songs and dances from inside the church.  We shared a simple meal in the Salesian community later that day with good conversation, many laughs …and even a bottle of altar wine.  The day was about rejoicing in the goodness of our God and sharing that with others.  How simply perfect.

2. A Little Flower of Thanksgiving
There was no moment more poignant this Christmas, nothing more deeply inscribed on my heart, than when I first saw my friends on Christmas morning.  Here in South Sudan, the children don’t anticipate new toys, fancy electronics, or any number of gifts under a Christmas tree.  All they want, all they desire, is new clothes.  They hope and pray for one new shirt, one pair of pants for the boys or a skirt for the girls, and maybe even a new pair of shoes if you’re one of the lucky ones.  I knew this before Christmas; I had heard all the chatter about new clothes for all the weeks leading up to the big day.  Regardless, nothing compares to that moment when I saw each of the children, one at a time, cross the threshold of the church, not wearing the torn, faded, and soiled one or two outfits they have worn every day since my arrival to this country, but instead in a crisp, clean, handsome new outfit.  They would glance my way and wave, a wide, proud grin across their radiant little faces.  It was an deeply emotional experience for me.  I was so taken aback by the impact of something as seemingly simple as clothing, which at home in America I would thoughtlessly buy every month or two as a need arose, or as Target would so faithfully beckon.  My heart was flooded with thanksgiving.  It was appropriate that I was sitting in church watching this scene unfold, because I was immediately drawn into prayer, thankful to God for providing their parents with the means to provide this necessary and wonderful gift for their children.  I wanted to hug all their parents and thank them myself for their kids’ new clothes!

Just as strong and powerful were the emotions experienced while watching the handful of children walk into the church that day wearing that same, tattered shirt and pants they’ve been wearing for as long as I’ve known them.  My heart was broken imagining how they each felt to be the few whose financial means couldn’t meet the cultural expectation.  I was hurting to imagine the poverty in those families, where certainly putting food on the table and sending children to school is as much of a struggle as providing Christmas clothes, and most probably they are lacking in more areas than just the obvious one.  For those children, I wanted to run to the market and put a new shirt over their little head with everything in me.  I know Jesus wrapped them up that day and held them close to His Heart in a special way.         

3.  A Little Flower of Contentment
I had a blast singing my heart out to the Zande songs and dancing around all day with my little friends.  The celebration was joyful in so many ways; overall, it was a spectacular day.  At the day’s end, as I made my walk home, I found myself in a wide smile as I came to this realization: I was more excited for December 26th.  I was eager to continue to harvest beans with the boys, play football during oratory, put Band-Aids on little toes, and share more of those sweet conversations with friends in simple English.   

I loved the Christmas holiday, but I love my life more.  

And one last little gift from heaven, my Christmas gift this year: these children.  Christmas afternoon I was leaving the convent on my way to the Father's house.  As I pulled open our gate I was intersected by these nine children.  I hadn't met any of them before, but we became instant friends.  They were joyfully and continuously telling me so many things in Arabic, and I was picking apart bits and pieces and responding as best as I could.  Though our attempt at communication was very broken, it was a perfect combination of funny, adorable, heartfelt, loving, and very sweet.  The usual 2.5 minute walk from house to house ended up lasting about 15 minutes after all the chatter, hair braiding, photos, and caroling we did along the way.  They were little angels from heaven, sent to love me on Christmas day.        

The coming of Jesus at Bethlehem brought joy to the world and to every human heart.  The same Jesus comes to us again and again in our hearts during Holy Communion.  He wants to give the same joy and peace.  May His coming this Christmas bring to each one of us that peace and joy that he desires to give.” –Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta


  1. Thanks for sharing Your Christmas experience. The Christmas in Maridi was really beautiful and unforgettable also for me. This was one of my favourite Zande carols from the mass in the night:

    May God bless Your work and all the people in Manguo.

    br Tomas

    1. Awesome video, Tomas! Thank you! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and all your loved ones in Slovakia.

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience of Christmas with us. There is much to be learned from your tale. The simplicity of your day was most touching. I have seen so often that those who are poorest are frequently happiest. We here in the States need more of that simplicity in our lives. So many of us lead extravagant lives, spending what we do not have, and procuring what we do not really need. Your little ones need so much and yet are happy and smiling with very little. How blessed are they, so poor not just in spirit, but in reality. Thank you for a gooe wake-up call. May your days in this mission continue to be blessed.