There has been much discussion lately about Christmas and its place in our culture. Arguments have erupted over greetings -- should it be "merry Christmas" or "happy holidays" -- or what to call the tree decorated with lights and ornaments. Do kids depart from school for a winter break? Or is it the Christmas holiday? Last week, the pope weighed in, encouraging quiet contemplation rather than rampant commercialization.
But I know where Christmas is.
In part, it stepped off a plane in Chicago last Sunday in frigid, wind-bedeviled temperatures, wrapped tightly in a coat and carrying a large suitcase. To tell you what happened next, however, would be to start in the middle of the story. Instead, let me rewind a week.
It was Tuesday morning, Dec. 13, and my mother-in-law Valentina, with her son Zhenya, prepared to travel to America for the first time. This is not an easy endeavor from Belarus, a beautiful but backward country tucked between Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania. Not only does such travel require a U.S. visa, but it requires official Belarus government approval. It also demands complicated logistical coordination simply to buy airline tickets -- and to get to the airport. (How we take for granted the conveniences and freedoms of life in America!)
Visas were attained, however, and a car was organized. Mother and son made their way to the airport and through inspections at the airline ticket counter, past customs and baggage check, through the U.S. visa check to the final military inspection. All seemed well until Zhenya's passport was pulled by a smirking guard and the 17-year-old was told, "You won't be going to America." A new stamp, required by the government, wasn't in proper form.
Distraught and in shock, mother and son lamented that no trip would take place, and new granddaughter -- Yuliana -- would not be seen. That's when the first miracle took place. The airline, which only flies three times a week from Belarus to America and which is usually full this time of year, found them seats on a flight five days later. A friend with a car appeared at the airport, dropping other acquaintances off, and a ride was provided back to their apartment. Over the next couple of days, the normally slow bureaucracy worked without problem and the passport stamp was received.
The next time at the airport in Minsk, there were no problems. They boarded the plane. And 20 hours later, they landed in Chicago. My wife Victoria and I greeted them with hugs and kisses. Soon after, mother-in-law was cradling the baby in her arms, laughing and crying, total love in her eyes, her touch, her voice.
So where is Christmas in this story?
It is in the love a grandmother feels for her grandchild. To see such love, and then to realize God so loved you and me he gave his only begotten son that we may live, is beyond words. It is humbling, inspiring, triumphant. How any father could sacrifice his child is an overwhelming thought. It is an overwhelming gift.
Christmas is also -- no offense to the pope -- found in Valentina's large suitcase. This heavy bag, hauled back and forth up and down stairs in their fifth-floor apartment, back and forth to the airport, from Belarus to Warsaw to Chicago to Cape Girardeau, turned out to be filled not so much with clothes or travel items, but with gifts for everyone she meets. Out of the bag has emerged chocolates and scarves, linens and baby clothes, vodka, sausage, bread and other items, which she excitedly gives away to others.
I know it is easy to get too caught up in the bustle of shopping. But at what other time do we as a society spend so much effort giving to someone else, rather than thinking about ourselves?
The pope had words about this too, encouraging the greatest gifts and not just material items: "Give of yourself through friendship and sincere affection, through help and forgiveness, by spending time together and listening to each other."
And therein is the final message of Christmas, which I saw arrive on that cold day in Chicago. Family, no matter what it looks like, and whether it is built through bloodlines or friendships, is nurtured by affection, through help and forgiveness, by spending time together. Of this we can all do more. The packages and bows are nice. The love, affection and forgiveness, though, are most Christ-like.
Merry Christmas to you, and to you all the best. Let us celebrate: His love is wondrous!
Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.