Because I am without family and close friends this Christmas, I had invited people from my English mass community who would otherwise spend Christmas eve alone, to come over for dinner. At first no one responded to the general email invitation sent out to the list serve, and then at tea after mass the other night, a couple of people told me they would come. I also asked three young students from Cameroon what they were doing and gave them my email when they said they had nowhere to go. But I didn’t hear from them until the afternoon itself, when one of them wrote and said five of them would come. I replied that five was too many because we already had four confirmed including me, and I didn’t have food for nine. In retrospect, that was very ungenerous of me! We could have stretched the food, but I didn’t trust that I was up to loaves and fishes.
Since the students didn’t want to leave any of their flatmates behind, they decided to stay home and celebrate together. It turned out that they thought I meant the dinner was Christmas day, not Christmas eve. Refusing to have all of them seemed like a failure of hospitality, though, which I value as a major virtue. It bothered me all afternoon.
But two other people from the English mass came over — Toby who works at the US embassy, and Agi, a Hungarian woman who speaks fluent English and sings in the choir. The third guest was Emmanuel, a young Pakistani man who is a friend of Sr. Mary, one of the Franciscan Missionaries. When I told her I was cooking for strays, she thought of him right away. Emmanuel is a computer engineer by training who now works in an Indian restaurant and speaks Hungarian. Astonishingly, he learned after he became friends with her here, that Sr. Marjeen, one of the Franciscan missionaries, knew his sister in Lahore when they nursed together at the hospital there.
I roasted two ducks, made braised red cabbage and apples the day before, and Hungarian mashed potatoes with smoked paprika. Agi brought a delicious, rich traditional desert made with butter, sugar and biscuit crumbs, Toby brought a white raspberry cheesecake, and Emmanuel brought apple juice. We said grace, chowed down, and talked about our lives, but mostly about Pakistan, and why Emmanuel had chosen to leave — “it was too hard to be a Christian there — I hate that about my country.”
After dinner, we went to the living room and sat around the lit advent wreath singing carols. Agi, the cantor, led us through most of the old favourites. What a miracle! Because it was Emmanuel’s birthday, we lit a candle on the cheesecake Toby had brought and sang happy birthday. It was interesting to hear about how the besieged Pakistani Christian community celebrates Christmas, singing carols as they go door to door and collecting each family at their house, making their way as an ever growing group, to midnight mass. Christians are 2% of a majority Muslim country, and only continue the faith through family lines, not conversion, since anyone who converts from Islam faces death at the hands of the community.
Emmanuel told us that most Pakistani Muslims blame Christianity as a whole for the US military actions against Pakistan that have killed many civilians since 9/11. They identify Christianity with militarism and the west, just as many westerners identify jihadist groups with all Arabs and Islam.
After they left, and I had cleaned up and loaded the dishwasher, I read the evening Scripture, which was the beautiful first letter of John 4:7 “anyone who loves …knows God.” It was such a lovely surprise and gift to read. I hadn’t expected it at all, after the weeks of reading the prophets, and the Christmas narrative, to get straight to the heart of it all, love.