Tuesday, December 12, 2006

No Silent Night

He comes to us in the middle of our everyday distractions, struggles and pain, when we are not expecting Him, and in places where we don't expect to find Him.
by David Diggs

It had already gotten dark one Christmas Eve several years ago when I found myself tromping down a muddy, unlit Port-au-Prince street that led past a crowded open air market. I was on a mission. A friend from my parents’ church back in Missouri had sent me a check for $30. Ordinarily I would have just turned the check over to Beyond Borders to help support our literacy work. But she had asked that I personally share the money with someone in need. Knowing that the streets were full of people facing Christmas in great need, I cashed the check, exchanged it for Haitian currency, and slipped the money into an envelope that I held tightly in my hand.

Twas the night before Christmas and absolutely every creature was stirring. The mist had turned to a light rain, sending everyone in the market and on the street into a panic with the threat of a torrent. The vendors had packed their inventories of grapefruit and avocados and used tennis shoes and a thousand other items into large baskets or sacks which they then loaded onto their heads. Now nearly everyone crowded along the street, pushing, shouting, shoving and scrambling over one another to get that last precious seat atop an overloaded truck that led back home. It was a noisy, dark, and dirty mess.

As I pushed my way through this wild scene to the edge of the market where I could breathe, I nearly tripped over a young woman who stood with a round wicker tray under one arm. On her tray she had arranged a couple dozen balloons and a few pieces of candy. She was trying to sell these to the departing merchants, knowing that many had children who would be delighted with a balloon for a Christmas gift. But the rain was destroying her chances. Everyone was too rushed to bother. Even if she had succeeded in selling all the balloons and candy, I knew her profit could only amount to a few pennies. I sensed that this gift was meant for her. I invited her aside from the fray to talk.

I learned that she had two children at home. Life had become very difficult a couple of years earlier when her husband had died of a fever. In spite of the rain she couldn’t return home. She needed to sell enough so she could afford something, a cup of cornmeal or a handful of rice, to save her children from a hungry Christmas. I asked to buy several balloons, enough to allow her to return home to her children. As I paid her for the balloons I also discreetly pressed into her hand the folded envelope of money. It contained more money than she could earn in a month of selling balloons. I quietly explained that it contained a Christmas gift for her family from a friend of my parents and suggested that she put it away and not open it until she arrived home. She smiled brightly, thanked me, and I never saw her again.

I had always found it difficult to get into the Christmas spirit in Haiti. It just never felt like “Christmas.” No Jack Frost nipping at my nose. No stockings hung with care. No Christmas tree. No Santa. I knew intellectually that Santa and Rudolf and Frosty were frauds. But forgetting them, even my images of Christ’s birth were romantic fluff formed by delicate nativity scenes and cute children standing in sheets singing “Silent Night.”

As I pushed my way back through the crowd, amid the darkness and noise and chaos, that first Christmas came more clearly into view. I could feel the crowds packing the road, rushing past Joseph and Mary, all trying to reach Bethlehem before nightfall. By the time they arrive Mary has already gone into labor. Joseph is searching madly for a place, any place, for Mary to give birth. There’s no room in the inn, only a dark and stinking stable. Sweat, tears, blood, pain… it must have been a frantic and frightening affair.

But as I imagined that young Haitian mother, wet and weary, finally getting home to her precious children, I could see her opening the envelope, and thanking God for this unexpected gift. And in this image I felt strangely connected across the centuries to the first Christmas Eve. One last wave of pain, one last push for Mary and then all the confusion, all the fear, all the pain suddenly melts away to reveal deep joy, for in her arms she holds eternity, her baby, her Jesus, her Emmanuel.

And that is how Christ comes to all of us—not with jingle bells, not with majestic trumpets, but as a deep joy that emerges from the noise, the pain, the fear, the confusion of our daily struggle.