In my humble opinion, one of the greatest gifts a congregation gives a pastor is the gift of looking out on their candle lit faces on Christmas Eve, while singing “Silent Night.” And St. Andrew’s delivered that gift. Twice.
The first service of Christmas Eve was a pretty familiar service for me. Lessons and carols. All of the American favorites–“O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” even “The Little Drummer Boy.” One of the children in the congregation, who recently turned nine, sang, in that beautiful, clear boy soprano “Once in Royal David’s City.” Gloria, the Filipina who is St. Andrew’s number one cheerleader and meal planner extraordinaire, sang a medley of Filipino Christmas songs. The readers were Egyptian and American. A young woman who just arrived from South Korea played her violin. When it came time for communion, I stood next to my ELCA colleague, a professor at the seminary, and placed bread into the outstretched hands of the people I have grown to love so dearly over the past four months. From Indonesia, the Philippines, South Sudan, South Korea, and the United States. From a whole variety of denominational backgrounds. Coming together to celebrate that good news of great joy for all the people. While we worshipped in the sanctuary, the Ethiopian congregation, worshipping in Amharic, met in the one of the classrooms for their regular Tuesday evening worship. Good news of great joy for all the people.
At the end of the service, I read John 1:1-14 and the ushers started lighting candles. They were brand newly made and took awhile to light. Apparently the message to turn off the lights while I read had not been delivered and, even though I read pretty slowly, the candles were only about half lit when I finished reading. I stepped from the lectern to turn off the light closest to me (the switches line the wall of the old building) and a number of people took the cues to turn off the ones closest to them. Soon, the candles were lit and the organist started to play. It was perfect. As I looked out over these candlelit faces, I saw a vision of the body of Christ, in all of its quirkiness. There were at least four other ordained pastors there that night, someone who may eventually go to law school, an diplomat and his family, an American family living in Germany who were visiting Cairo over the Christmas break. People who work as electricians and cleaners. Professors, teachers, students. People who ask for prayers that they might find work soon. The church guard had gone to get the woman who cleans the Guild Hall on Fridays and on special occasions, and they stood in the back with their candles lighting their faces. We are an unlikely band of brothers and sisters, brought together by the one whose birth we celebrated that night. We ended with “Joy to the World,” and it seemed totally appropriate that we sing that joyful tune, remembering that God-with-us has indeed come for this whole wide world.
Gloria made sure that none of us would go hungry and there was quite the banquet spread out for us in the Guild Hall after the service. As usual, there were conversations in at least two languages, and we enjoyed traditional food from many places. There was even a turkey.
But the night was still young. The Nuer congregation had invited us to their worship service, which was to include 32 baptisms. They told me to go ahead and eat and visit and if it got to be time for me to come, someone would come and find me. I walked in about half way through the baptisms and saw a whole bunch of people gathered around the old stone font. Parents and children, two women’s elders proudly standing next to the pastor to lift up the little ones. As assisting minister read the names and helped corral all the children. It was a little bit chaotic, yet so very holy. The pastors had asked me to participate in the baptisms, and soon it was my turn. I looked into the shining eyes of mothers, and the sleepy eyes of more than one little child. The water was warm as I poured it over their heads, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” and traced that cross on their foreheads, “You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Brothers and sisters in Christ, named and claimed in the waters of baptism.
There was joy in the air we finished the baptisms and the congregation welcomed the newly baptized with their special clap: clap-clap-clap, clap-clap-clap, clap-clap-clap. A couple of women ululated. Mothers beamed and a few stirred in their mothers arms, having fallen back to sleep after the water had been poured over their heads.
And then it was time to sing. Someone handed the keyboard player a song book and stood over him with a candle. The pastors stood at the lectern and looked out over their congregation. Ushers made sure everyone had candles and turned out the lights. A few even lit sparklers. It was a totally different “Silent Night,” upbeat, a different melody, the drummer beat steadily on the oil can drum. And, for the second time that night, I tried not to let the tears spill out over my cheeks.
And then there was Christmas Day.
If you’ve been following the news from South Sudan, you’ll understand why I will treasure Christmas Day 2013 for a very long time. Even while Nuer and Dinka in South Sudan fight and kill one another, the two communities in Cairo, as well as the Sudanese Lutheran congregation that worships at St. Andrew’s, and representatives from the Shilluk congregation that worships elsewhere in the city, came together for worship on Christmas Day. In Arabic and English, Nuer, Dinka, and Shilluk, we prayed and sang and came together at the Lord’s Table. For those three and a half hours, differences were set aside and prayers were lifted up, together, in thanksgiving and celebration. Prayers were lifted up for peace, in South Sudan and Syria and throughout the world.
There was lots of music. The song leader would begin to sing, and soon voices were raised throughout the sanctuary, not just by one group, but by the whole congregation. Even at the point in the different congregations sang a special song, everyone joined in. Women danced in the aisles and voices were raised throughout the old, dusty sanctuary, decorated in its Christmas finest. We were welcomed at the Lord’s Table and came forward with outstretched hands, each fed with the bread of life, regardless of where we came from or what marks might other wise distinguish us.
The Spirit moved among us and did not distinguish us by tribe or language, but called us together as brothers and sisters in Christ and made us witnesses of the good news of great joy for all the people. The good news of great joy that brought us together. The good news of great joy that takes strangers and enemies and calls them brothers and sisters.
On Christmas Day, I looked out over this congregation that the world news would lead us to believe shouldn’t be together. Couldn’t be together. And yet we were. In peace and joy and celebration. I was struck by the promise of incarnation. By the promise that we celebrate on Christmas–that God comes to us. That God comes, not as the mighty and powerful warrior, but as the humble and vulnerable child. And then continues to breathe life and hope and promise into the lives of people, even with all of the baggage that we bring. With all of the joys and sorrows that we bear. With all of the struggles we face. That God continues to come to us, God’s beloved people, is worth remembering and celebrating, not just on Christmas, but always. It is indeed good news of great joy for all the people. And light that shines in the darkness.
Merry Christmas from Cairo.