(Me sharing the Czech tradition of lighting Sparklers with the kids at FPC Ponca City during the Children’s Sermon on Christmas Eve—“When we see the light we can understand what light is, just as through knowing Jesus we can understand love and our loving God.”)
Just as my first Christmas in Policka didn’t quite feel like Christmas, the Advent season in Atlanta and Ponca didn’t quite feel right either. Christmas seemed to come a little too soon for me, as we were giving Christmas concerts and having Christmas diners at the beginning of December, as if Advent was almost non-existent. I loved studying the Apocolyptic texts of Daniel, speaking of the coming of the kingdom of God, in my last Old Testament Class and translating “Advent texts” from Isaiah for our Hebrew Final Exam, but before I knew it, I was already back in Ponca singing for FPC’s annual Christmas Music Spectacular(Which was amazing, I might add) and caroling with old friends. I kept longing for Advent (Ironic isn’t it?).
I feel like I’ve spent a lot of my spiritual life “in waiting” so I feel very connected to the season of expectation and hope. This was one aspect of the Czech holiday season that I cherished. Everyone cleans house and bakes cookies and buys gifts and there is this sense of preparation in the air. Sure we had Christmas Plays and Parties and other celebrations, but certain things aren’t enjoyed until Christmas. Many mothers, for example, won’t allow their children to eat any of the thousands of cookies waiting on the back porch until Christmas Eve (Well, you can always sneak a cookie, but waiting is part of the fun). Plus the Christmas tree doesn’t go up until Christmas Eve. I think this makes the tree much more special when there are all the other decorations around the house, but all month you’re still waiting for the unveiling of the tree.
So since something didn’t feel right, I tried to make it feel like Christmas. Like a good little Czech Lady, I made some ginger bread cookies, a bunch of them, and iced them and gave them to several friends and teachers. I didn’t catch everyone, because they had already left school, but those people who I did share them with enjoyed the sugary treats (mine had quite a bit more sugar and icing than the Czech versions:) I did get some strange glances at my interesting cookies, but I didn’t let it bug me, because the awkward replies always ended with a smile.
Another Czech tradition I tried to replicate came on Christmas Eve with the Fish Soup. I didn’t know what I would do, since they usually use the head of the carp which ends up left over from the fried fish fillets they serve for dinner. You can’t just walk into Walmart and pick up a fish head. Well, maybe you can, but I didn’t quite have the guts to walk in and ask for one. Anyway, before I had to face that decision one of our pastors at FPC mentioned that he had some whole trout frozen in his fridge if I wanted them. Okay, so now I have the fish, no problem right? Well, every Czech soup has the same base, so I thought it would be a piece of cake, and I started off and the base was looking great, and I was quite hopeful for my success. I somehow braced myself to cut the heads off of the fish bodies(thank goodness he had already gutted the fish), and I tossed them into the soup. My Dad was like, “Shouldn’t you add a bit of the fillet to give it more flavor?” And I replied, “I don’t think so. I think they just use the head.” Well, I should have listened to my Dad, because it turned out to be the blandest soup I’ve ever made. Then when I talked to Anna Dus after Christmas, she said that she always adds a bit of extra meat to the soup to give it more flavor. Well, I guess it wasn’t all disaster though, because I still remember my sister’s surprise at seeing the dead fish heads sitting in a bowl staring up at her in the kitchen! Now that made it all worth it!
When I wasn’t trying to relive my Czech memories, I was trying to practice the traditions I remembered from Ponca. I already mentioned going caroling with friends from church, and although we were doing the same things we always did, the people were new and the homes we visited were all different. Oddly enough, I feel like I knew every one of the “Shut-ins” we visited this year, even though none of them had been on our list when I last caroled 6 or 8 years ago. Knowing the people made each visit special and meaningful. Plus, the time in the van from house to house allowed for me to get to know some people from our church like our new Pastor and his wife and rekindle longtime friendships with people I hadn’t really spent time with in years.
But this too became a theme as everything turned out differently than I remember, and as I was standing next to my Dad and Sister, singing Silent Night and holding our candles in the dark church at the close of the Christmas Eve Service, I realized something. Christmas is always changing. We are always changing. And amidst all of this, God continually sends us the gift of love, peace, and hope, time and time again.
As I was pondering this, our studies in my Old Testament class of the Prophesies of Isaiah came back to me.
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. Isaiah 53:4-6
Our professor was telling us how these scriptures that Handel has attached to our memories as speaking ONLY of Jesus Christ could also have been speaking about the nation of Israel or even King Cyrus of Persia or even all who become servants of God, with the individual seen as a microcosm for the community’s experience. I asked her, “So what does this mean for us as Christians? Do we say that Jesus is the messiah in these scriptures?” Wow, what a question. I have to say this is one of those hard blows seminary throws at you, where it makes you rethink everything you’ve built your faith on. But it’s moments like this that you can take the opportunity to build that foundation on solid ground, better understanding through questioning. She didn’t deny that these scriptures match up with the experiences and the sufferings of Jesus, but she explained that the coming of the servant or messiah from these scriptures is something that is not “done or complete”, but rather something that is recurring and happening again and again throughout the history of the Jewish people, pointing out the Holocaust as a possible recent persecution and deliverance occurrence.
Happening again...and again...throughout history...As we experience disappointment and suffering, God is saving us and delivering his people, again...and again. These words kept going through my mind that Christmas night and it all became clear. The message for the Advent and Christmas season this year spoke to me of the faithfulness of our Amazing God:
As we change and the world changes and our traditions and surroundings change, God finds new ways to provide for us and new messages all to remind us of the same thing—He loves us. In this case, at Christmas, he reminds us that He loves us so much that he would send His Servant to bear our pain, and Deliver us, again, and again.
As we go into this new year, with many blessing and disappointments mixed with joy and suffering, May God continue to provide for you and deliver you in new and surprising ways:) Happy New Year and Merry Christmas!