One Christmas Eve in Djibouti my family drove past a cart. It was a rickety wooden contraption attached by frayed ropes to the back of a donkey and clattered down the main road. A man sat on a makeshift seat and held a stick, hovering it above the donkey’s flanks. He wore a red and white shawl and a brown macwiis, a Somali-style sarong. His face was wrinkled, beardless, and wind-worn.
I said to my husband, “If there was a pregnant woman in that cart, I would swear it was Joseph and Mary on their way to Bethlehem.”
The image stuck with me. It made the story of Christmas and the birth of Jesus tangible, weighty with the muffled clack of donkey’s hooves on dirt, the sting of a dusty wind, the smell of the desert, the look on a man’s face.
My family has lived in the Horn of Africa for almost twelve years. Ten Christmases have been spent in the desert. All these years have turned Christmas from a fairytale coupled with heaps of gifts into a realistic story coupled with the yearning ache of advent.
Advent, the four weeks preceding Christmas, is a time epitomized by waiting, longing. 400 years people waited to hear from God and then his Word came in the form a baby. But whether a family is religious or not, most engage in some kind of countdown to the big day. Lighting a candle each Sunday and reading meaningful texts. Hiding candy around the house and giving kids clues each morning.
What we are counting down to might be a day to spend with family, to give and receive gifts, to feast. It might be to joyfully honor the birth of a promised and miraculous child, Jesus. We count down and with each passing day, our hope increases. Hope that the day of feasts and gifts will arrive. Hope that this child born two thousand years ago did not come in vain and will, one day, bring peace to earth.
Christmases in the Horn of Africa have increased my longing, deepened my advent ache because we see the brokenness, need, and lack of peace so vividly all around us. We go to church to sing Christmas carols and pass dozens and dozens of homeless men sleeping on sidewalks. We hear news of another slaughter in southern Somalia. Djibouti faces an unemployment rate of nearly 60%. On other continents there are hostage crises and floods and drought. There is Ebola across the continent from us.
All over the world, the need and the ache are powerfully tangible. But so is hope. All is not broken, all is not lost.
Djibouti is 94% Muslim and though Muslims revere Jesus, they don’t traditionally celebrate his birth. But my Muslim friends know we are celebrating a holiday that is important to us and they respect that. Yesterday a friend brought gifts for my girls. On Eid we celebrate with our neighbors. Not because of religious conformity but because of genuine relationship.
I think this year in America there is also a deepened advent ache because the brokenness of our nation has been laid bare. Though not everyone will call it an advent ache, there is a burning desire to see justice and healing rain down. #blacklivesmatter and #icantbreathe are a heart-wrenching cry for fundamental change.
The more time my family spends living outside the homogenous neighborhoods of my own childhood means more time for my family to encounter the brokenness of the world and the hopefulness of the people working to heal it. We live right in the middle of the advent season of longing.
In the US, in the wake of devastating grand jury announcements, black and white are standing together, or laying on pavement together, or marching together. Together, the way my Djiboutian friends include us in their celebration and respect ours.
The way forward, the way of the longing and advent-aching heart is together. As we countdown this year with candles and candy, may each day be a reminder of the justice and healing we long for. May each day be an inspiration to actively pursue that justice and healing side by side, American and Djiboutian, Muslim and Christian, black and white.
Merry Christmas and Eid Wanaagsan and Joyeux Noel.