The smell of palm flowers in the air. Hot, sultry days giving way to breezy cool nights full of the sound of exploding fireworks. Piles of juicy watermelons for sale along the side of the highway. The clay ovens being heated with wood fires to bake delicious pans full of bread made with cornmeal and manioc flour. Yup, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Doesn’t sound like Christmas to you? Well, what do you associate with Christmas? The smell of cinnamon, pine, and spices? Cold, crisp days promising snow? Quiet, peaceful nights and the possibility of carolers at the door? Delicious Christmas cookies and pies being baked in the oven and filling the house with sweet smells?

When I think about the sights, sensations, fragrances, and sounds of Christmas in the northern hemisphere and those of my adopted home, Paraguay, I realize they could hardly be more different. Gradually I’m learning to replace in my mind the American ones with the Paraguayan ones, but it’s a long process—these are emotional associations at a deep level!

But all of this has forced me to think about what are the important aspects of Christmas and which elements are really dispensable. It turns out that many of the aspects of Christmas that I have been so attached to are not in fact vital to the celebration at all! I’m obliged to return to Scripture once again and try to imagine what it must have been like for Mary when the angel said to her, “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus … for nothing is impossible with God!” (Luke 1:31, 37) Very few of her sensations in the moments and months following that announcement can have been pleasant or agreeable. There was rejection, discomfort, confusion, and loneliness. There was the understanding that her obedience to God’s plans would not be easy or convenient. But finally there was the calm and deep security: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” (Luke 1:38)

Tonight I will interpret into Guarani for my dad, who will preach a Christmas message to a house church in our rural, poor community in Paraguay. There will be very few of the trappings of Christmas in evidence in the simple gathering. But the heart of Christmas remains and, perhaps, shouts louder for the lack of adornment: “Come and see what God has done, how awesome his works in man’s behalf!” (Psalm 66:5) “We wait for the blessed hope– the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” (Titus 2:13-14)

Andy Bowen is a longtime friend of the camp who serves as a missionary in Paraguay.

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