It’s Christmas Eve 1972. I’m in a small, simple chapel in a Benedictine convent, out in the bush some 120 kilometres north of the coast in Dahomey in West Africa. (Dahomey, by the way, is now called Benin. Just to situate you. And its biggest town, lying on the coast, is Cotonou.)
The chapel is hot and stuffy. It’s also packed. The nuns – from France – are at the front. I’m there, in the middle of the shifting crowd, with a French friend. We are the only other white faces in the congregation. We are both teachers in a former mission school in Cotonou. We are taking advantage of the Christmas holiday to do a bit of travelling through the country. There are as yet few hotels in Dahomey, and the traveller usually stays over in mission stations. Denomination is not an issue.
Our neighbours in the congregation don’t seem to be paying attention to the priest celebrating Mass. And yet, he is a local man and is using their own language. This is not comfortable for me since I have no idea what he’s talking about, or even where he is in the Mass. He speaks: most of the congregation don’t listen. They talk among themselves, admire each others’ children, go for little walks around the chapel. Some of them wander up to the front and stare curiously at the crib scene which is still waiting for the Baby Jesus; and then they wander back. Some of them amble right out the door, others come in. The priest talks on.
I am, I have to say, a bit narked by all this. I have come here expecting a peaceful and prayerful evening where I can reflect comfortably on the familiar Christmas story.
I notice that, when it comes time for communion, very few of the crowd go forward to receive communion. And yet the chapel is packed.
By the end of the service, the Baby Jesus is in place and has been well inspected by the congregation before they wander back out into the surrounding bush. I am now hot, uncomfortable, confused and quite frankly annoyed.
The sister superior, who has been chatting with the priest, comes over to speak to us. She is a tall, broad woman in whose presence one immediately feels safe. As she approaches I prepare for a conspiratorial moan.
“I love these times,” she says, beaming.
“All these people who have no real idea of what’s happening, but who come out of curiosity, because there’s something going on and they want to know what it is. I like to think the first Christmas was like that. Those shepherds didn’t get the gift of certainty with the Angel’s message. They must have been just as confused as the people who were here tonight. And the Wise Men too: following a star to a smelling stable to find a King.
Even Mary and Joseph must have been confused. Full of faith, yes, but they were caught up in something they didn’t really understand as well. And there must have been other people who came to have a look at what was happening. Bethlehem was full of people and there must have been gossip and rumours, mustn’t there? It’s only natural. And they wouldn’t understand what was going on in the stable. We’ve made it all so hygienic with our hindsight and reflection and theology.
I like to think there must have been just as much confusion in that first Christmas as there was here tonight. Wonderful, don’t you think?”
Needless to say, I didn’t share my moan. I ambled off to reflect on my blessing!
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