I wasn’t too sure what to expect for my first Christmas in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya. Certainly, the slum in which I lived was devoid of any of the commercial excess. There were no malls, no black Friday, none of the things mark our Advent season. Occasionally, you could hear Christmas carols, traditional and tribal, float out of one of the wood sheds/tin roofed stores. But most the familiar signs and markers that Christmas was coming were missing.
Still, people were getting ready to welcome Jesus into their homes. I don’t think there was a home which did not have a nativity scene all prepared – mostly hand-made. Each family had its own tradition of what figures were added as Advent moved along. All simply awaiting the figure of the Christ child.
But there was not a Christmas tree in sight.
In Kenya the parishes are organized into jumwiya, Small Christian Community. That was my family for Christmas Eve. It was a wonderful evening – lots of people, lots of singing and story telling, and lots of food – simple but plentiful. And I saw my first Christmas tree.
Now least you think that we are talking a magnificent Douglas Fir decorated to the “nines,” recall that (first) we lived in a slum, (second) there are no Douglas Firs in Kenya, and (third) it would be more helpful to imagine Charlie Brown and his Christmas tree. The family Christmas tree was about 2 feet high, thin, few branches and less greenery. It was bowed over by the burden of the three or four ornaments – two of which were damaged. Yet, it was the family’s and it was beautiful.
It was a night of welcome.
There is a traditional song/dance that women perform when one of the women of the village has a been. It is the village’s way of welcoming the child into the world, letting the child know they are part of the community. It was a song whose words were ones of greeting for the child, blessing for the mother, thanksgiving to God for such blessings, and a promise from the community to this child that there would always be a place in their home for them.
There was, however, one awkward moment of the evening. One of the sons was home. He was on scholarship to Nairobi University and …. well, was very impressed with himself. He was holding forth on the lingering effects and corruption of British colonialism on traditional Kenyan values. This night the particular target of his insight and learning was the family Christmas tree
The university student was heaping scorn upon this poor little Christmas tree. His capstone argument was how foolish was this British tradition when everyone knows that a tree belongs outside; that one does not welcome a tree into the home. It does not belong. It is not the way of the world.
The Kenyans are a well-mannered people. Even though this young man was a wet blanket on an otherwise wonderful evening, people let him have his say.
But when he was done, an mzee, one of the respected elders in the clan simply remarked: “The ways of world, heh? It is the way of the world that the powerful eat and the rest go hungry. It is the way of the world that kings and leaders burden our backs and shoulders. The ways of the world are many.”
“But these are not God’s ways. God who does not belong in the world, came among us as one of us. God the powerful knew hunger. God the king took on our burden. God came to us as a child. Kumbe!
This night we welcome Him into our homes. We welcome you. And we welcome the Christmas tree, but because it is a sign of God who has come. We open our arms and lives to all. We follow the ways of God. It is the way of our world”
Welcoming – the way of God. Maybe it is that simple.
Joseph did not follow the way of his world, but in love welcomed Mary into his home.
Three wise men, shepherds, chorus of angels and heavenly hosts welcomed the Savior,
Who grew up to welcome the poor, the widow, the alien, the stranger, and the orphan.
And centuries later, in the slums of Kenya, the women of Kenya sang and danced the newborns into their homes.
A Pope in Rome is showing us how to open our arms to the world.
It is so simple.
So on this night, let us do what is ours to do: welcome Christ anew into our homes. And keep those arms open wide for the days, weeks and month to come. It is the new way of the world.