X-mas in Xigatse
For three months I had prepared for Christmas. We spent hours collecting an assortment of Christmas cards, some with serene scenes of the Nativity, and some with little boys, full of the Christmas spirit, playing jovially on a snow-blanketed mountainside. I worked on my diction so that each word of “Away in a Manger,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Jingle Bells,” and “On the First Day of Christmas” would ring out clearly as I led the choir. The day had finally arrived, July 30, 2004. It was Christmas in Xigatse, Tibet. My team, made up of two middle-aged, single, Canadian women, and three American college students, spent the afternoon decking the halls of one of our classrooms where we taught English that summer. We wanted our sixty students to know Christ, so we decided to introduce him through celebrating Christmas. The students’ English comprehension level fell below that of a first-grader, but we all prayed and we believed that our presentation of Christ’s birth would turn their Buddhist hearts toward Jesus.
Streamers stretched across the room, hot chocolate steamed from rows of cups, stockings hung above the fireplace I’d drawn on the blackboard, and the students arrived. We directed them to piles of paper where they were to make a Christmas tree, and then cut out ornaments to tape on the one-dimensional boughs. I demonstrated how to make paper snowflakes, candy canes, and garland. Dan, a teammate, made a dramatic entrance to the room, shouting, “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!” Due to our limited resources, he looked like an ambitious homeless man who volunteered as a Salvation Army bell-ringer. He passed out the Christmas cards; the serene manger scenes sparked less interest than those with dancing reindeer tangled in lights.
As if I were teaching pre-school students, I acted out the motions to “Away in a Manger.” They struggled through “On the First Day of Christmas,” although their accents provided a bit of flavor to the irritatingly repetitious song. Next came the event that we had all so eagerly awaited—the pageant. I made my way to the back of the classroom as the skit began, clamoring through chairs of eagerly waiting spectators.
Mary and Joseph entered, looking uncomfortable in their Palestinian head coverings. The Tibetan couple clung to their scripts, but when it was time for their lines, the looked as if they wanted nothing more than to turn the scripts into paper airplanes and thrust them toward some other unlucky fool. Mary sat in her chair and fidgeted, repositioning her shawl. Joseph looked at the snickering crowd from under his headdress, a towel that looked like a prop leftover from the filming of a Skittles commercial. By his body language, one would have thought that he stood before a firing squad.
The angel entered as a messenger from God and said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. You will have a baby that is the Son of God.” The angel’s murmuring made it evident that she, too, felt nervous about reading English in front of her peers. Pink foam wings sprouted out of her Xigatse Middle School uniform. Following her weak announcement, baby Jesus appeared.
I had designed the little King’s body from an empty orange juice bottle, and used pink construction paper for His head. Two hand towels became swaddling clothes. The audience snickered as Mary was handed the “babe.” She held the juice jug Jesus as if he were going to cause some sort of foul-smelling seepage to stain her khaki slacks. At that point, three shepherds entered through the doorway. They wore matching yellow scarves on their heads, each scarf secured with orange ribbon above their eyebrows. Not one of the poor shepherds made eye contact with the audience. They simply struggled through their lines while Mary, whose elbow rested on the Savior’s body, examined her fingernails.
With some pomp, the Wise Men entered. All three wore gold crowns, and the leader, who loved the attention, wore an oversized sheet of metallic wrapping paper as a cloak. They approached the baby, whose white bottle cap was poking out of the top of his head due to the negligence of the Virgin Mary. The Magi bowed. Bearing gifts for Jesus, but bringing humor to the audience, the three Wise men foolishly portrayed the noble eastern kings. They have never heard this story, I told myself. They just do not understand.
While all the spectators enjoyed the show, I battled against the collapsing levee of my tear ducts. What I viewed as the greatest gift from God to man seemed like a joke to my Tibetan friends. Turning my head away from the source of my heartache, I glanced at the wall beside me.
Before my eyes stood one of the Tibetan-crafted trees. It was adorned with paper snowflakes, a cut-out of one student’s hand, a Santa hat, and some crepe paper streamers. The highest bough held a massive yellow star. My eyes stretched further up the wall. A red outline of a misshapen pentagon towered over the star. Inside the red shape was the distinct insect-like form of a swastika, a Buddhist symbol. It felt so foreign to me, yet so familiar to them, just as Christ was part of me, but they did not even know him. They knew Buddhist rituals, acts of gaining merit, and their cultural symbols. They worshiped Buddha, a bronze, lifeless statue. Though the juice jug, too, was an inanimate object, it represented Jesus, who is eternal life. They did not know Jesus. I did not know Tibetan.
And there they sat, laughing.
A New Kind of Love
It all seemed fine at first. My sister had a beautiful wedding by a lake. The reception was flawless and then she and her new husband waved goodbye to all the guests from the window of a limo as it whisked them off to catch a flight to Molokai, a private island in Hawaii where they would spend 10 days of honeymooning delight. They enjoyed time at the beach, learned how to crack open coconuts from a native, and viewed the highest and steepest sea cliffs in the world. Their time was relaxing and enjoyable. Then they came home.
They had been married for less than two weeks when her husband fractured and separated his shoulder in an unfortunate slide into first at the family softball game. I talked to her on phone a few days later. It went like this: “He’s sleeping on the couch because he said that I rolled over on his shoulder in the night. He can only wear loose button-up shirts because he has to wear his arm inside, and he tucks the sleeve in, so it looks like he is missing a limb and has a huge pot-belly. He can’t even put on his own pants, and he’s been waking me up three times a night so I can open up his bottle of painkillers. I finally realized today that I should just leave the pill bottle open so he can get them at his own liberty.” It didn’t take long for her to realize that marriage requires a radical love. Just so, Jesus calls all his disciples to a radical love in John 13: 33–5.
The scripture records events that took place on the night of Jesus’ arrest, just after he washed his disciples’ feet and after Judas left the upper room to betray him. Jesus told the remaining eleven disciples, “My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come” (John 13: 33). With these words, Jesus predicted his death, and the disciples became just as confused as they were all the other times he predicted his death. But knowing that he would soon be leaving them, Jesus gave them his final instructions. He said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
The disciples must have thought, “Why is this a new commandment?” For them, the command to love was by no means new. It could be found in the Mosaic Law, which they all knew well, and Jesus, himself, had already taught that the greatest commandment was to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22: 37–8). Yet Jesus said this was a new commandment. He told them they must love one another as He loved them. They would soon realize that His love, the love he called them to emulate, was a radical love. This love caused him to suffer brutal beatings; this love led him to accept the nails driven through his perfect wrists and feet; this love prompted him to cry, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” Jesus loved with a selfless, sacrificial love.
Jesus desires us, as his followers, to love one another with this radical love. 1 John 3: 16 says “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.”
In the early third century, Tertullian wrote, “It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many people to put a brand upon us! ‘See,’ they say, ‘how they love one another . . . see how they are ready even to die for one another.’”
If all of us lived this selfless, sacrificial love—even to the point of laying down our lives for someone else—we would much more easily do something as simple as setting aside our own agendas and hectic schedules to comfort a grieving friend, or pull over to help a sister with a flat tire, or patiently help our husband open a bottle of painkillers.
My sister and her husband are learning this love amidst the stresses of surgeries and physical therapy. This same love also characterized a priest named Father Damien, who moved to a leper colony at the bottom of those same Hawaiian sea cliffs that my sister visited on her honeymoon.
Father Damien lived there for sixteen years. He learned the leper’s language, embraced them, and bandaged their wounds. He preached the gospel to them with Christ’s radical love. He built schools, started bands and choirs, and built homes for his exiled friends. He also constructed 2,000 coffins by hand so that when the lepers died, they would be buried with honor. People said that eventually the leper colony in Molokai became a place to live instead of a place to die—all because of the radical love shown by one man. One day, Father Damien began his sermon differently: with the words, “We lepers . . .” You see, Father Damien had not carefully kept his distance. He ate with the lepers, shared his pipe with them, and didn’t always wash his hands after wrapping their wounds—and for this, they loved him. Eventually this meant that he shared their condition. Father Damien’s love reflected that radical love demonstrated for all of us by Christ on His cross.
May they know we are Christians by our love.
 Story from John Ortberg’s God Is Closer Than You Think. Zondervan, 2005. 103–04.
Copyright 2010 Caitlin Greer