My date of birth roughly coincides with the Advent season. But I neither remember my first birthday, which I am told was quite grand, nor my first Christmas. What I do remember is that in my early years, Christmas meant the following
Over the Years
Firstly, there was the setting up of the Christmas tree. I was never good at it, and mostly it was my father and brothers who unwound, raised, and decorated it. This was accompanied by Christmas songs (Boney M, Charlotte Church, and Josh Groban etc.), coffee, dried fruits, and nuts.
Secondly, there was a Christmas party every year in one of our relative’s house (how we are related, I still don’t know). This involved food, cakes, some games, and of course, Santa Claus. Seriously, there was a “white man” dressed up as Santa. I am guessing he had British origins, and since Pakistan was once part of India which was a British colony, this was not all that surprising.
Thirdly, there was the choir program at our church. I attended Sunday school at a Baptist Church, and now I am a part of a Pentecostal congregation. But for the greatest time I was a member of the Church of Pakistan, the offshoot of the Church of Scotland. This was where I got my baptism and confirmation. The choir program I am talking about was conducted by the English Congregation of St. Andrew’s Church (Andrew being the patron saint of Scotland), where classic Christmas tunes, “Silent Night”, “Hark the Herald”, and “O Come All Ye Faithful” were performed.
Allow me to diverge at this point. Even though we live in a country where English isn’t spoken widely (although it is one of the official languages), virtually all churches here have western names. However, only a selected few actually conduct English services. This comes to show the influence of western Christianity on our local ‘Esai’ beliefs and practices, even when we have been freed of the direct political and culture dominance of the British for over 6 decades now. Thank you for the divergence.
Anyway, from 2010 till last year, we even incorporated short stage performances on the Nativity narratives in the choir program. I was a part of this choir, and we also, at least on two occasions, took out a carol party to several Christian homes in the late hours of the night.
Finally, the hallmark of the season was the midnight Christmas service on the 24th. So we reach the church at about 10 PM and worship till the midnight. The church building where we attended this service is declared a heritage site by the city government, so not only are there reporters from new channels, but dignitaries from political parties are also seen at the service. This is quite significant, for while the typical westerner cannot associate the Christian community of Pakistan without the “P” word (persecution), the local Ecclesia, at least in the 2 or 3 metros of the country, enjoys significant patronage (for a lack of a better word) from the government.
Police has been deployed in many churches, which does not search people who attend worship services. Now compare this with the fact that Muslims visiting places of worship on special days are searched by the police. The irony.
Also consider that the state-run channel, PTV, actually airs Christmas programs conducted by Pakistani Christians from the midnight of the 24th. So the situation is not dire as it seems. In fact, as far as the media is concerned, there has been a notable transition towards political correctness, even though the right-wing dominates the newspapers and channels. The popular term to denote Christians in the Indian subcontinent was “Esai”, derived from “Esa”, which is the name given to Jesus in the Muslim Holy Scripture. Ironically, the Book already has a name for Christians-“Nasara”– but hardly any Muslim ever uses it.
For some reason, many believers I know resent this word. They say that the Muslims are trying to impose their terminology on us. The Urdu translations of the Bible have “Yesu Masih” for Jesus Christ, so we preferred being called “Masihi”, as if this makes a world of a difference. But “Masihi” is the term used by the media as well. It’s funny because neither “Yesu” nor “Esa” are the real names of Jesus. In his mother tongue, it was probably Yeshua, and in Koine Greek, it is “Iesous”. So while Arabic is supposed to be a Semitic language like Hebrew, the Qur’an actually chose a name that is closer to Greek. But in any case, from a linguistic point of view, local Christians have no problem with being associated with “Esa”.
Now I speak as if I have got it all figured out, but it was not long ago that I actually got into arguments about how we don’t even believe in Esa but Yesu. Many of my fellow-believers, even the leading men and women in the community, still have this point of view.
In fact, I have come to realize that are few things more unfortunate than seeing people adopt beliefs as they grow older that you held when you first became religious and later shunned with a little research!
I just explained to you what Christmas meant to me and thousands of Christians in my city when I was a young. A lot more can be said, but I think the point has been made. But over the past couple of years, I am beginning to look at Christmas in an entirely different light.
We Three Kings of Neverland Are…
It started with the realization that there were no ‘Three Kings’ on the first Christmas. The Wise Men were neither kings, nor were they 3 in number. In fact, they didn’t even reach the stable were the baby was born!
One of my mentors once told me that while preaching in a church during the Advent season, he mentioned the same thing from the pulpit. As expected, a gentleman came up after the service and rebuked him for not knowing the Bible!
Who is to blame here? Maybe songwriters and movie-makers. “We Three Kings” is without a doubt one of the most beautiful Christmas carols ever performed, and most films on the subject show the 3 kings right there at the stable with the couple, the baby, and the shepherds. So while we know that these songs and movies are not word-by-word renditions, they are still beautiful and captivating. And there is nothing wrong with enjoying them, but the danger begins when you start basing your historical knowledge on pieces of entertainment.
But this not all we have ignored while indulging in the festivities of the season. For instance, while none of us really knows how old Mary was when she was ‘found to be with child’, in all probability she would be quite young. In a time when pregnant women have to take extra care when travelling in cars and planes, we take it for granted that Mary rode a donkey to another city, where she gave birth in what cannot be called a maternity home by any stretch of imagination.
And what about Joseph? The ‘invisible Jew’ as Richard Lewis would have called him. Imagine your girlfriend or fiancé telling you she is pregnant because an angel came in her room and uttered some prophetic innuendo. Its 2013, yet hardly any man would marry a woman who has a baby in her womb that is not his own, keep him in the family, and teach him his trade.
While the Virgin Birth is an essential doctrine of Christianity, I have come to believe that even if Jesus wasn’t born miraculously, he would have still grown up with the same spirit of compassion and sacrifice, just because he had wonderful role models in his earthly parents.
Anyway, the angel came to Mary. Now here is another image blown out of proportion in popular culture. It as if we expect that it was normal for Jewish girls in the first century to have a supernatural being show up in their rooms, announce that they are going to be pregnant, and they would happily oblige.
This is something that we tried to correct in our 2011 choir program. There wasn’t going to be any winged creature or a man in white robes on stage surrounded by a halo or smoke. Instead, there was just going to be a voice, with lights falling on the face of the girl who played Mary, who would be dead scared as if a ghost has entered her room. That is exactly what Mary would have thought of in the first place, and the visitation of Gabriel would have been a haunting experience. In most of the Jesus movies I have seen, this effect hasn’t be portrayed at all. Thanks for the divergence once again.
Moving on, “how can this be?” was the right question Mary asked to the angel, for it is true that babies aren’t born of virgins. This is scientifically impossible, right? Well, technically it isn’t, for there are several animals that breed without mating. The precedent exists, but then again, such behavior isn’t seen in mammals, at least those who are on a higher stage of evolution.
The fact of the matter is that those of us who believe accept this and other miracles by faith. But real friction with critics starts when we do not define our terms properly. Miracles are supernatural occurrences, but they are not violations of physical laws; only interventions it them.
The gravitational pull of the earth would never allow a plane to take off unless an equal or higher force keeps it up in the air. Similarly, running a red light is a crime, but not for emergency services. The law is not violated, only an exception is made. This is how a miracle occurs. If we take the word to mean that the Creator is free to annul the physical laws He created, then it would give the impression that God didn’t give it a lot of thought when creating the universe, and now He has to break His own rules regularly to get things done.
The ‘Ugliness’ of Christmas
Finally, while reading the Nativity passages in the Gospels, it is not that difficult to miss the horrors surrounding the birth of Jesus. King Herod the Vile announced the slaughter of infants in and around Bethlehem.
This incident, coupled with Mary and Joseph’s suffering is what makes the story of the first Christmas so powerful. Yet this is something that people in the west seem to overlook. Any comment on the commercialization of Christmas will sound redundant, but looking at the Christmas episodes of any popular American sitcom gives you the impression that the cultural value of Christmas has superseded its origins.
Perhaps that is why Christianity as a religion is losing its appeal in the 1st world. The 3rd world on the other hand instantly connects the stable in Bethlehem. In countries like mine, children are born all the time like Jesus, i.e. without proper sanitation, surrounded by poverty and the constant fear of death. Mary and Joseph were forced to seek asylum in another country to save themselves and the child.
So call it mythology if you like, but the story of Christmas is as real as it gets, and till the day things like poverty and tyranny end, the birth of Jesus will continue to stay relevant. I’ll close with a translation of a quote from Allama Ibrahim Yusuf:
“He was poor at birth and poor till His death. When He was born, it was not his mother’s home, and when he died, he was buried in another man’s grave. In his birth, life, and death, he was all and all unique from others, that is why even after 2,000 years, the world finds it hard to forget Jesus”
This year will be my first Christmas with the new congregation, so let’s see what happens!
Michael is an overweight undergraduate from Pakistan. He works as a ghost writer, and his interests include literature, linguistics, and writing itself. You can catch him at his blog Christian Writer.