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Laurel Borisenko, of Edmonton, Alberta, served as co-representative for MCC West Africa from 2003 to 2006. This reflection was published in 2004. This December, Borisenko read it at an annual Christmas banquet at her church, Lendrum Mennonite Brethren. “I worried that it was too dark for this type of program, but people seemed to appreciate being able to think more deeply than Santa, sleighs and snowmen,” she says.
Advent is waiting. We people of faith go through this annual cycle of waiting, remembering and anticipation. We share, with child-like anticipation, great joy as we hear the story unfold, knowing the outcome but loving the unfolding just the same.
We anticipate God’s blessing, just as ancient Israel did, though we know that there will be blood and pain and suffering woven into the mix. Having lit our advent candles, we pause now to wait for the birth: night pregnant with waiting, darkness pregnant with hope, a Word waiting to be spoken.
This year I have been sheltered from the busyness and commercialism of North American Christmas. In my little house in Burkina Faso, it is dark and quiet with the most extraordinary aura of peace. No lights, no decorations, no music, no snow ... I am not with the angel choirs, I am not with Santa in the malls, I am not even with Handel’s Messiah. I am left with the written word, the Incarnate Word and (like Mary) the ponderings of my heart.
But I have not been sheltered from others’ suffering. Burkina Faso is a terribly poor country. I see in villages babies with big malnourished bellies and glazed-over eyes, their mothers with the same glaze of hopelessness after desperation doesn’t work. When we finish a meal of fish and rice at a roadside stand, three street children descend on the remaining fish head and bones and strip it clean like barracudas. This is in contrast to the copious wealth gained by violence and corruption one is exposed to in the cities.
And so as I prepare my heart this year, I find that I skip the birth story and go directly to the murdered babies: Rachel and the mothers in Bethlehem who (unasked) sacrificed their sons for the Savior. The bloody afterbirth. Author Annie Dillard scorns the way we try to make the Christmas story into “a pretty and sensible picture, like something on a Christmas card.” There is nothing “pretty” about having your first baby in a barn, or fleeing terrified into the night to start your life as a refugee — or hearing the screams of mothers who have had their baby sons ripped out of their arms to be murdered. It is as if our doorways have become marked with a big ‘S’ for Santa, and the angel of the whole truth passes us by.
But the truth is that Emmanuel, who came to ransom captive Israel, must first be given asylum from Israel. The Word incarnate came as a refugee into this world he spoke into being. And in a lovely redemptive reversal, it is Egypt — the country from which the Israelites fled as slaves — that provides a safe haven for the Holy Family.
In West Africa this Christmas, I find the Word incarnate in the eyes of urban refugee children. Their families can be found in obscure corners all over Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital city, having fled from the terrors in Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Central African Republic and, more recently, Darfur, Sudan. As I visit one home I see three children lying on a plastic mat on the cold concrete floor — maybe not so different from a feed bin in a barn.
Even in the face of this real and daily suffering I see such strength of spirit; I see warmth and generosity; I see smiles that shine like the rays of a star. I see Jesus. My African friends teach me about waiting. Our advent reward is the baby born into the poor refugee family — much more like their families than like mine — and the brief and brilliant glimmer of hope, like the rays of a star consecrating the threshold of a barn.
“What came into existence was life, and the life was the light to live by. The Life-light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness could not put it out.” -- John 1:4,5 The Message