The Christmas Day Service would begin earlier than the normal services on Sunday mornings. That meant we had to be at Pastor Mukendi’s before 9am on Saturday morning. Taking his advice about travelling by car instead of by bus and by foot due to the possibility of rain, we climbed in the Landcruiser and headed up to Dikongayi Parish, in the commune of Lukonga in the city of Kananga (where we live). A few minutes after 9am, we gathered with Pastor Mukendi, some of the elders, the women’s choir, and the children’s choir. Pastor Mukendi said a prayer, and the choir began a chorus as our long line-up processed together into the church building. We began early because it would be a long service. There were six choirs and each would sing 3 songs. We went through two “tours” of all the choirs before moving into the next part of the service.
In the U.S., church-goers and family and friends generally go to church on Christmas Eve, and save all of Christmas Day for family and fun activities (gift exchange, nice meals, etc.). In Congo, people worship on Christmas Day and have a large meal with family and friends afterwards. At Dikongayi Parish, we learned that the youth also had a special worship service on Christmas Eve with a drama of the Christmas story. A refreshing part of being in Congo is that this season has been devoid of all the commercial glitz and glamour which often distract and sometimes disturb. In the days leading up to Christmas we have noticed a peacefulness and relaxed mood in the air – almost a whimsicality. In a land of scarcity, privation and hardship, it is almost as if God has placed a special blanket of grace over the land for this holy time of year. People have been walking around leisurely in groups, talking and laughing, singing and calling out to one another. On the big day, families “kill the fattened calf” (usually a chicken, goat or pig) and celebrate!
After the first two ‘tours’ of songs from the choirs, we sang a congregational song and then Kristi prayed for the children, for peace in families, for peace in the country, for the sick, and she gave thanks to God for sending Jesus Christ. Kristi and I both read scripture, and then Pastor Mukendi preached. After the message, we gave our offering. During the offering time, the joy in the air was palpable. Old women swayed their hips and the young people displayed their awesome dancing prowess – twisting, turning, jumping, shaking a leg one direction and then the other, smiling throughout. Unadulterated, pure joy filled God’s temple of worship (I wish you could have been there!).
One thing that stands out in my mind from our time of worship on Saturday is that so many were involved. As a seminary graduate, I have been given the gift and the luxury of thinking about and discussing with colleagues and professors the reasons why we worship and also the ways in which we worship. Trained in the Reformed tradition and now ordained into the Presbyterian Church (USA), I have learned the value of the Word of God read and preached during worship. In my experience of “church” the last fifteen years as a follower of Jesus Christ, I have noticed that evangelical Christians often place central importance upon the sermon in worship. A good or bad sermon often determines whether or not one’s worship experience was meaningful and helpful or not. To some evangelical Christians (perhaps many), the word or concept of “liturgy” is not understood or almost considered a dirty word. ‘Liturgy’ is often understood as rote, as something which constricts and confines the freedom and spontaneity of worship. Yet, as I learned in seminary, liturgy actually means “the work of the people.” For worship to be meaningful for God’s people, the congregation needs to be involved (not simply watching others or just listening to a pastor’s exposition of scripture).
On December 25th at the Dikongayi Parish in Kananga, the people were involved! The ‘work of the people’ was evident. Our liturgy was beautiful! Each choir probably spent hours preparing for the big day. All the different songs sung by all the different choirs were met with spontaneous cries of excitement, jubilation, and praise. Sprinkled between songs, different children and youth would stand and read significant portions of the Christ story. Each song told more and more of this amazing story, this story which had gathered us together. The preachers and teachers were the men, women, and children who were singing the Christ story. At one point in the service, I felt in the depths my being the beauty of how this Christ story had become the defining story for my gathered African brothers and sisters. Like me, they had been swept up into this larger-than-life meta-narrative which continues to transform individuals, communities, nations, and destinies. This story has become their story too, and we were all involved in one way or another in telling it (singing, reading, giving, preaching, dancing, drumming).
Our Christmas Celebration in Congo was simple and special. I was reminded of the beauty of liturgy, and how important it is for the whole gathered Christian community to be part of the telling of the Christ story. Pastors and preachers are needed, but so also are the children, the mothers and the fathers, the youth and the aged. The heralds of the first Christmas were simple shepherds and three foreigners from a distant land. God can use any voice, and He wants to use all our voices (and our gifts) to bring Him glory.
Hallelujah and Amen! Immanuel – God is with us!
Feasting afterwards with Pastor Mukendi and Mamu Helen, Elder Kanku and Tatu Raphael