This post first appeared on Assist News Service in February 2016.
As I write this, it’s two days after Valentine’s Day, and I still haven’t taken our Christmas tree down. We’ve been traveling a lot, and I’ve spent the last four months feeling ill and exhausted as side effects of early pregnancy, so many things haven’t been done in a timely fashion. But I do hope that today I will finally manage to put away all of our Christmas decorations. However, I don’t feel as pressured to take care of it as I probably would were we living in the United States, because the winter celebrations here in Ukraine are different, and on Valentine’s Day, I actually spied someone else’s Christmas tree in a dumpster. Apparently, we’re not the only ones to have ours hanging around into February!
In Ukraine, the holiday season finally reached its close less than a month ago. Christmas has always been my favorite time of year, and I love living in a country where it doesn’t seem too crazy to leave your tree up for two full months, or even a little bit longer, as is the case for us this year. (It’s a good thing ours is artificial!) We typically put our tree up around December 1, which is a little early in Ukraine, but not too ludicrous, especially these days, as malls and shopping centers have begun to put up their decorations earlier and earlier.
Here the festivities officially begin on December 19 with St. Nicholas Day, when children wake to find presents left by the Turkish philanthropist who has gained such mythical status since his death. It’s not a tradition that we keep, since our kids have never believed in Santa Claus, but since the older ones started attending school, I realized that perhaps we should start a family tradition of letting them open one of their Christmas presents on December 19. Otherwise, they go to school and feel left out because all the other kids are talking about the gifts they got from St. Nick that morning.
After St. Nicholas Day, the next big holiday of the season is New Year’s Day. It is the biggest holiday of the entire year. In order to suppress the celebration of Christmas, with all its religious significance, the former Soviet Communist government shrewdly transplanted the most popular Christmas traditions, making them part of the New Year’s festivities instead. Now, over two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukrainians still exchange New Year’s gifts and ring in the New Year with all-night parties in homes adorned with New Year’s trees.
A week after the New Year, on January 7, the Ukrainian Orthodox and Greek Catholic churches observe Christmas. It is a quieter holiday when people typically return to their villages of origin to celebrate with family and a huge traditional meal. The whole Christmas season is also a time when carolers go door-to-door, earning money. Sometimes you’ll be treated to beautiful renditions of traditional Ukrainian Christmas carols in four-part harmony, but more often, the carolers are small groups of boys chanting tuneless versions of the traditional songs in hopes of making some extra money. It’s kind of like an innocent version of Trick-or-Treat.
The extended holiday season finally ends on January 19. Called Epiphany, in Ukraine it commemorates the baptism of Jesus, although in Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions it celebrates the visit of the Wise Men. It is a much smaller holiday; children don’t even get the day off from school, but government offices that have reduced hours during the holidays don’t usually get back to business as usual until after Epiphany. Expats living in Ukraine often joke that if you have any official business to take care of, you might as well forget about it during the months of December and January, and that’s not far from the truth. For my part, I’m always glad for the excuse to slow down during these two months when the days are short and the weather is inclement. We sit inside in the glow of our Christmas tree, watching the snow fall while sipping mugs of tea or hot cocoa, enjoying family time, and reflecting on the season.
This year I found myself contemplating the meaning of Christmas in a new light. I saw it as it relates to our missionary calling to Ukraine, and I realized like never before how Christmas in its very essence is a missionary celebration. This perspective came about because of a ministry trip my husband took.
My husband spent two weeks during the early part of December touring Ukraine’s eastern front with a Christian rock band. Their purpose was to spread the gospel and raise morale by playing evangelistic concerts for the soldiers stationed there. This was not the first such trip he’s taken since the armed conflict in the eastern part of Ukraine began almost two years ago. But this trip was a little different. On previous trips the guys would play concerts, talk with the soldiers, and sometimes do manual labor to help with things that needed to be done around the bases, but their custom was to return to a house or hostel outside the conflict zone to sleep each night. This time they actually spent some nights with the soldiers.
One evening my husband messaged me a picture of the place where he and another member of the band were spending the night. It was spartan, just two small cots in a bare room, but my husband explained what an honor it was, because the only two female soldiers at this outpost had given up their quarters for my husband and his roommate. A few minutes later after he lay down for the night, however, I got another message from him, “Wow! The ‘bed’ is just a board with a blanket on it. I guess we’re getting a taste of how the soldiers live.”
On this trip, the band really did get a first-hand experience of the soldiers’ lives, minus actual combat. At one outpost they were even warned not to venture beyond a certain building, because that territory was covered by an enemy sniper. As a wife waiting at home, praying for the safe return of my children’s father, I didn’t like hearing details like this. But at the same time, I truly believed in what they were doing, and I realized that this level of willingness to identify with the soldiers must give the Gospel message they were bringing far more credibility. In general, people don’t care what you have to say unless they can see how much you care, and it’s difficult to demonstrate that care without getting up close and personal, being willing to enter into the difficulties and pain of those you are trying to reach.
What the band was doing during their two weeks touring the front reflected on a small scale what long-term missionaries do every day, all over the world, for years or decades at a time. They leave the comforts of home, country, and culture, and move somewhere unfamiliar, all to take the gospel message. Their goal is to so identify with the nationals that they are able to be effective communicators of that message.
Achieving this level of identification is grueling work. No matter how motivated you are, learning a language to fluency usually takes years. No matter how much you want to understand the culture, there will be aspects that will shock and offend your own cultural sensibilities. It can be deeply discouraging. But one day, if you press on, you reach a magical point. Maybe you realize it when you find yourself laughing along with a group of nationals at a joke that wouldn’t have seemed funny a year before. Or maybe it’s when you visit home and find yourself missing the cuisine of the country where you’re ministering. Or maybe it’s when you discover that you feel more at ease in your adopted country than in your home country. Whatever form it takes, one day you realize that you truly love the place and the people who once felt so foreign, that you ache for their pain and rejoice in their triumph. You have almost become one of them.
The incarnation—God leaving His glory to become flesh and dwell among us—is the most sublime example of this we will ever see. While I know that I will never become fully Ukrainian, Jesus became fully human to identify with us and to save us. While we face frustration and discouragement to make Jesus known, it is nothing compared to the rejection and agony Jesus faced to make us His own. While some go with a willingness to risk their lives, Jesus came in order to give His life. This is the gospel, and it is the reason we celebrate Christmas.
The incarnation was the most audacious missionary assignment ever proposed, and it has altered the course of history, changing the lives of millions of men and women, making them willing to risk anything, because Jesus has already given up everything for them. Christmas is a wonderful reminder, but it’s not enough. This truth is so momentous, I want to commemorate it every day, long after I finally take our tree down.
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