On Christmas Eve, I went to the service that began at 10pm. The church was surrounded by police. While at first I was a bit intimidated by this, I realized that this was for simple crowd control. This church is in the middle of an agora, so on most nights the plaza out in front is filled with hundreds of people, doing anything from sitting and talking to hip-hop dance clubs practicing their craft.
This night the plaza was quiet in order to allow for the procession, which began at around 11pm. Inside, there were several thousand of the faithful, mostly Chinese, but also quite a few ex-pats. It was all rather glorious. One ongoing source of surprise and delight is that living in an officially atheistic country has an unintended consequence of having rather clear and clean air of faith. In a way I have discovered breathing Christmas to be much easier and simpler here than in the States. “Merry Christmas” is just that. The words of Christmas do not return unaccomplished. Last night, after coming home from an early Christmas Eve feast at the family of one of my students (and such a feast it was!), I gave the equivalent of a 6 dollar tip on an 11 dollar fare, along with a “Sheng dan kuai le,” “Merry Christmas.” It was as though I had offered this cab driver a new home and a free education for his children. The thankfulness and gratitude and delight he expressed chased me out into the night. How easy it is to bless others. And, at the dinner, my student, a lovely young lady of about 15, asked the kind of simple yet immense question that seems to permeate much of our students’ thinking, but does not yet know how to find fuller expression: “Do you believe in God?”
I had invited a friend of mine, a graduate student in pharmacology, whose entire being is delighted with learning more about Christianity and, in this case, its Catholic expression. She, in turn, had invited some of her friends. Because this is such a heavily attended service, tickets are necessary. I had four, graciously given to me by the principal of our school, so just enough. My passport ended up being my ticket.
The first half of the service ended at midnight. However, as it would then go on for another hour at least, my friend and her friends had to leave, as did I. So, quite a memorable first Christmas Eve night here in Beijing!