Christmas in Cambodia
When I think of Christmas, I think of silence, of the deep calm that settles over the earth with the snow. It seems to take on a profound significance at Christmastime, like the earth is holding its breath in reverence.
But this Christmas, I’m living in Cambodia, where there is no snow and no silence. I will have to reconcile my idea of Christmas with the heat and the noise.
For the first Sunday of Advent, I attend church in Phnom Penh, wearing my usual sunglasses and flip flops. The customary Old Testament prophecies about Jesus are read. A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse… he will give justice to the poor… his mouth will destroy the wicked.
In Cambodia, there are too many poor and too many wicked. Jesus seems to be dragging his feet a bit on those parts.
The following Sunday, I’m in Battambang, the city in northwestern Cambodia where I live. I sleep through church and wake feeling groggy and guilty.
Biking to my favorite café, I pass the people I usually see. There’s the amputee who fills my bike tires with air when they are low, the monks that live in one of the three wats within five minutes of my house, and the family that has used a tarp to create a makeshift home on the street where they live.
I make a mental note to scan the news ahead of the demonstrations planned for Tuesday. The opposition party is protesting July’s rigged election, which reinstated the strongman who has ruled Cambodia for twenty-eight years. His rule has been characterized by violence, corruption, and callousness. The news is filled with headlines of government nepotism and disregard for human rights, as well as land grabs and forced evictions.
Young people are particularly impatient with the status quo, and there have been regular protests in the five months since the election. The protests have done little to sway the prime minister, who intends to rule for another decade.
Arriving at the café, I mark the second Sunday of Advent by reading Isaiah 11 again. He will wear righteousness like a belt. Then I prepare Christmas cards for my friends and family. The cards are covered with the usual winter symbols of snow, reindeer, and pine trees. I draw a coconut tree on one to make it more representative of Christmas in Cambodia.
Over lunch, I tell my friends how strange it is to prepare for Christmas this year. It doesn’t feel like Advent in this climate. Everything about life here feels like a summer holiday rather than a winter religious festival.
My friends aren’t religious. One turns to me with wide eyes. “You mean Advent isn’t just about the chocolate calendars?”
Everyone wants to hear about the religious significance of Advent, so I try to explain.
The word “Advent” means . . . preparation, or anticipation, or something, of Jesus’ birth, and that’s what Advent is about. It starts at the beginning of December, and there are candles. Four candles, one for each Sunday before Christmas. Wait, there are five candles, because there’s also the one lit on Christmas itself. They each represent things like . . . peace, and other things like that.
My explanation is pathetic, reducing Advent to candles and a trite message.
Of course it’s pathetic. I’d never deeply considered Advent’s meaning before this year, and I am still figuring out its significance here, where the symbol of a candle driving away the darkness and the cold does not resonate as it does in the midst of a Canadian winter.
The next morning, I read Isaiah 11 again. The wolf and the lamb will live together. I research Advent to ensure I’m better prepared the next time I’m asked to explain its meaning beyond chocolate calendars.
I find a description of it as a season of “expectant waiting,” and these two words follow me as I cycle to the café. I’m sipping a coffee when a Cambodian woman steps just inside. She kneels on the ground and presses her hands together in a silent supplication for money. One of the staff presses a bill worth twelve cents into her hand.
Expectant waiting. During Christmas in Canada, we focus on Jesus’ birth as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies, and we wait for things like presents and Christmas dinner amidst a season of commercialized joy, where cheer is hung over our heads with the tinsel and mistletoe.
But Isaiah’s prophecies were only partially fulfilled by Jesus’ birth. Justice for the poor. Fair decisions for the exploited. We’re still waiting, still yearning.
The woman leaves with her twelve cents, and I see Advent in a new way. Perhaps it is a season of peace and joy, but it also a season of longing and of impatience. It is kneeling to ask for compassion, for justice, for the things Isaiah promised long ago.
In Canada, the earth holds its breath in silent reverence. In Cambodia, it cries out with indignation: Destroy the wicked. Make fair decisions for the exploited.
Come on, Jesus. Stop dragging your feet.