One of my principal ministries at present – and the one I enjoy best – is speaking to Grade 8 students in separate schools on pro-life. I usually begin by doing a few card tricks and telling a few stories, just to make the occasion a little less formal. But, with the approach of Christmas, I take a different approach.

I begin by asking the question, “Where was Alexander the Great born?” No hands go up. Then I ask, “Where was Julius Caesar born?” A similar response. “Where was Charlemagne born?” Heads shake. They never heard of him. “Where was Napoleon born?” Perhaps two hands go up. “Somewhere in France” – which of course is wrong, as Napoleon was born on the island of Corsica.

Then I ask, “Where was Jesus Christ born?” All hands go up and there is a chorus, “In Bethlehem.” Then I say, “And of course He was born in a beautiful palace.” Another chorus, “No, He was born in a stable.”

Then I recite the words Napoleon is reported to have said as he approached death as an exile on the island of St. Helena: “Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, and myself. We have all tried to found empires and our empires have crumbled in the dust because they were founded on force. One Man alone founded an Empire on love, and today, 1,800 years after His death, there are millions of men who are ready to lay down their lives for His Name. Can He be less than God?”

A Baby Who is God

The answer to that question is, of course, the reason why every Christian child knows the story about the Baby Who came into this world in circumstances of the most incredible poverty and loneliness. The most important aspect of Christmas is not the Santa Claus parade, or the parties, or the gifts, or the general revelry. It is the Birth of a Baby in a stable or a cave. A Baby whose first resting place was a manger. A Baby Who was and is God.

Somebody said, “He was born in a borrowed cave and was buried in a borrowed grave.” I was raised in Ireland where – at least 80 years ago – Christmas was really “Christmas.” But I believe it was only on the occasion of my first Christmas in Africa that the real significance of the Birth of Christ reached down to the depths of my heart. I described it in my book, Yes, I’d Do It Again, and I take the liberty of repeating it, word for word, in this article.

If I were asked what is my most vivid memory of Africa, I think I would say, “My First Christmas in Africa in 1942.” I probably saw Christmases in about 20 missions in Kenya. But they are mostly a blur, with the exception of the first. I think the reason is that it was such a contrast and, at the same time, so familiar to the Christmases I had known in Ireland.

The externals were quite different. The substance was the same. Christmas in Kenya comes at the warm time of the year so the Africans know nothing of the snow, which we associate with our Christmases.

Flickers of light

About 9 p.m. that Christmas Eve, Father Lynch, the pastor, said to me, “Why don’t you go out and watch the people coming for Midnight Mass?” It was pitch dark, so I said, “How can I see?” He replied, “Go and see.” I went out and all around I could see little flickers of light moving towards the mission. They all brought their small oil lamps, as there were no lights in the church. The night was still, with no wind, and it was very warm. Some people had walked 30 miles and would walk back through the night, arriving home in the morning.

The church was not opened until 11 o’clock, so they sat around the compound and chatted and laughed and danced. Many had come from far away and had not met since the previous Christmas, so there was great rejoicing, laughter and greetings. It must have been like the first Bethlehem, when the people gathered for the famous Census – which brought Mary and Joseph and the Unborn Baby all the way from Nazareth!

Shortly after 11 o’clock, the church bell rang and the doors were opened. The people crowded into the church. There were not only Catholics but also Protestants and pagans. There were no televisions or radios to distract them, and Midnight Mass was really one of the big events of the year for them. The church, which was quite large, was packed in no time and the children’s choir began singing Christmas carols.

I was sitting in the sanctuary as I was not celebrating the Mass. Father Lynch, being the pastor, was presiding. As the familiar tunes of the carols followed one after another, my heart began to get very full. It is an extraordinary and very emotional experience to find oneself thousands of miles from home and hear the same carols sung in another tongue. It somehow makes the Divinity of Christ more real than anything else I know.

There is no natural or human explanation for Christmas. The Birth of a Baby, born in a small village nearly 2,000 years ago, is celebrated all over the world – even in the catacombs of Russia and China. I sat listening to the African children, with their clear voices, singing the same tunes which have rung down the centuries and were being repeated that very same night in thousands of churches and in hundreds of languages all over the world.

I was keeping my emotions fairly well under control until the choir struck up Silent Night. To hear that beautiful carol, which I had sung in Ireland, as a child, a boy, and a man, resounding through the church!

The African children have no inhibitions about singing. They just “let go” especially when they know a hymn well. They lifted the roof with “Zaa a Nena, Sikukuu,” the Ki-Swahili for “Silent Night.” I turned my chair completely towards the altar to hide my tears.

The ceremonies proper began at midnight, and the children sang the entire Mass in Latin – without books. Africans have great memories. If they have heard the words of a song a few times, they never have to look at a book.

‘The greatest story ever told’

The Crib or Nativity Scene was at the side and covered with a sheet. At the end of Mass, the ushers removed the sheet and the people came up in a line to look at the figures.

In his homily, Father Lynch had explained the meaning of Christmas in their language. Many, who were not Christians, would be sharing the story for the first time. They were always fascinated by “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” The fact that God came down to earth and had a human mother was no problem for them.

I turned my chair around and sat at the side of the Crib, watching the faces of the people in the candle light. I was particularly interested in the pagan women, with their own babies on their backs or at their breasts. They stared at the Mother and Child, with wonder in their eyes, knowing it was something of another world, but never doubting the truth of the story.

Africans, particularly out in what the whiteman called “The Bush,” have retained natural values which we, in the sophisticated West, have lost. One of these values is the glory of motherhood. Every African woman wants to be a mother and the fact that, when God came down to earth He had chosen to be born of a woman was simply another indication of the true dignity of motherhood. In a strange way, the Story of Christmas came alive for me as never before.

When the ceremonies were over, the people left the church and stood around outside to chat and wish each other the blessings of the season. Then they left on their long journey home.

Father Lynch and I stood outside the church until the last ones had gone. Then he turned to me and said, “Christmas is over for the Africans. For the white people it has scarcely begun.”

Christmas for the Africans meant the Birth of Christ. For the white people – at least in many cases – it meant gifts, parties, and plenty of drink. We have so much to learn from those whom we presume to teach!