Thursday, December 22, 2011
Advent is a tricky thing. On one side of Advent there are the Christmas gifts to wrap and merriment to prepare. There’s a familiar old set of songs to sing and gatherings to attend. But on the other hand there’s the fact that all of these festivities are only made possible through the oppression, depravity and brokenness of humanity and the earth. If there was no underlying struggle, there wouldn’t be a need for Jesus to be born, no birthday to celebrate and therefore need to put gaudy twinkle lights on every outdoor surface of our homes.
I’ve recognized this tension as my busy December has been filled with emotionally exhausting work, extensive road travel and some serious relaxation. From American Thanksgiving through the first week of December, I worked in Beira to help make my MCC boss’ life a little more organized. While in Beira, I visited an orphanage where my afore-blogged friend Ruth works. Then on our way driving down to Maputo, a crew of fellow-MCCers and I made a quick stop in Vilanculos, a town on the Indian Ocean. It was amazingly beautiful, and Jon and I were able to dive and snorkel, swim with dolphins and sea turtles and gaze out at ridiculously turquoise water. We hurried to Maputo in time to wait in consecutive days of nine to twelve hour meetings with our CCM-ASA colleagues. We also learned that the epic grant whose decision we have been waiting for in the past nine months will in fact not come through for at least another six months, if at all. This means drastic changes in the scope of our program, personnel and budgets. To drown some sorrows, I then headed further south to the lovely Swaziland with lovely friends for a far too short vacation. And to top it all off, I’m heading back up to Beira to spend Christmas there with friends.
In all of these comings and goings, I’ve been reminded of this season’s thin line between joy and pain. It’s uncomfortable to sing oh come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant when visiting a country with the highest adult HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in the world. It’s difficult to envision the desire of nations coming to bind all peoples in one heart and mind when you realize your culture has fundamental differences with someone else’s. It’s crazy to think of walking in a winter wonderland as dust sticks to sweaty skin when walking down a sweltering street. It’s challenging to wait for the government to be upon Jesus’ shoulders and his name to be called wonderful counselor when elections are scammed and lifelong presidents are once again sworn into office. And it’s hard to imagine fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeating the sounding joy when nothing but diplomatic rhetoric was repeated at the climate conference in Durban, and throwing money around was concluded to be the only solution to protecting the environment in developing countries.
But there is something oddly comforting in knowing that little Lord Jesus knows what it’s like to not have a crib for his bed as I’m holding an infant who was abandoned by his mother. It’s easier to hear heaven and nature singing when you’re hovering just under the surface of gently rolling ocean waves to watch an incredible coral reef burst with color and life. There’s some sort of tiding of comfort and joy when every Swazi we asked for directions gave them to us with a smile and without judgment for being tourists.
After leaving the orphanage in Beira a few weeks ago, I walked back to where I was staying on a sand road alongside of the ocean. It was such a delightfully bright and sunny day, and I felt so blessed for having such a free and lavish blessing as the ocean to view. But then I started to smell something fishy. Really fishy. I realized that the dirty diaper of the child I had been holding had accidentally left some residue on my arm. While considering this revelation, a strong sea gust hit me with an overwhelming stench of dead fish. So there I was again with all that yucky in the midst of all that beauty.
For me, the compelling and bittersweet thing about Advent is that it celebrates Jesus being born into a world of juxtaposition. The reason that the weary world is rejoicing is because of all of the pining over sin and error in which we lay. The celebration of Christ’s birth is highlighted by how much we need to be born into something new. Our spirits are cheered by they dayspring’s advent with us. We rejoice that the Emmanuel is God actually with us, born into our helplessness and with us from the heights of the Drakensburg foothills to the depths of coral reefs. We sing and smile and wrap and glow because we have the hope that a new and glorious morn will break somewhere yonder in the future. But for the time being, as we sort through the beautiful and the heartbreaking and the injustice and the rejoicing, we know that God is with us, no matter what we smell like.