“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are . . . For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.”
– I John 3: 1, 11
“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love.”
—I Corinthians 13: 13
Only once in my life have I celebrated Christmas twice in the same season. It was 1991 and I had celebrated a traditional Christmas with family and friends in Georgia, but on New Year’s Eve I was headed to Russia where I would celebrate Christmas again on January 7th, the traditional Christmas Day on the Russian Orthodox Church calendar.
It was my privilege to be part of a group given the task of scouting out mission opportunities in Russia for college students and we would be visiting churches in both Moscow and St. Petersburg.
What made this Russian Christmas unique was the fact that it was the first time that Christians would be allowed to openly celebrate the holiday following the fall of the strict Communist regime that had promoted atheism and banned religious holidays. There was a sense of great anticipation in the churches for that new freedom to celebrate the birth of the Savior.
January is a bleak month in Russia. It was bitterly cold at times and snow covered the ground. It was dark except for a few hours of bleak and dreary looking daylight. The economy was in shambles and most people were miserably poor. Long lines formed in front of stores as people sought basic necessities, but the shelves inside were largely empty. Many of the people on the streets had a blank look on their faces and seemed depressed.
But the Russian Christians had dramatically different expressions on their faces. I attended both Baptist and Russian Orthodox services and the churches were always full. People dressed warm because the church buildings lacked sufficient heat. But the warmth they demonstrated toward their American visitors belied the miserable winter conditions outside. They sang and prayed with gusto and their countenances glowed.
It was obvious to me that their faith made a difference in their lives, but what was the primary cause for the distinctive demeanor that separated them from the rest of the Russian populace?
We talk at Christmas about Hope, Peace, and Joy, and certainly there were those elements in the lives of these Russian brothers and sisters. But really there was limited hope in Russia about what the future would hold, even for Christians. There had been regime changes before. And this uncertainty about the future would dampen any sense of hope or peace for better times ahead. Perhaps this new freedom to worship would only be temporary.
There was some Joy evident in the season by the return of Christmas trees with some meager lights and home-made decorations. Christmas carols were being sung again and there was feasting, though somewhat modest by American standards since food was not plentiful in Russia.
There was Hope, Peace, and Joy evident in the lives of the Russian Christians, but what was most evident was their Love for the Lord Jesus, and for one another. That had been the one constant in their lives even through all those years of religious repression.
And rather than being resentful of us American Christians because our lives were so much easier in comparison, they loved us and showed that love in so many ways, from the food they shared with us, to the place of honor they gave us on the front rows of their churches. Much to my embarrassment, even the old people insisted on standing so that we would have the best seats! It was so obvious when they greeted you that we shared the love of Christ and that love had no geographical or racial boundaries.
I love my traditional Christmas experience with family and friends in America but I appreciate it even more because of that year I experienced a second Christmas in Russia.
I will never again take for granted the beauty of this season and what it represents to Christians around the world who are filled with hope, peace, joy and love, all of which emanates from the presence of Jesus Christ in our lives. May the spirit of Christmas remain with us all throughout the coming new year!
Bill Neal is the Interim Pastor for Senior Adults and Pastoral Care at First Baptist Church of Decatur. He has enjoyed a long career in Baptist ministry, which includes campus ministry, religious journalism, the local church, and more recently, a statewide ministry for people with developmental disabilities.