Oh Holy Night: My First Christmas in Pakistan

Fr. John Burger
December 28, 2010

After applying for a visa to visit the Islamic Republic of Pakistan over Christmas last year, I was instructed to present myself in person at the Pakistani consulate for an interview.

Why was I going? And, why go at this particular time? The morning of my interview at the consulate, a deadly bomb had been set off in the market in Lahore, Pakistan. What work did I do in Hong Kong? Did I intend to do anything missionary on this trip?

My answer was that I just intended to visit missionaries over the Christmas holidays and sightsee, not engage in mission myself. Apparently my answer was satisfactory, and the requested visa, by no means a sure thing, was granted.

As I boarded the elevator down to street level from the consulate’s offices on the 35th floor, a recording of “Oh Holy Night” was playing.

“Long lay the world
In sin and error pining
Till He appeared and the
Soul felt its worth.
The thrill of hope,
A weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks
A new and glorious morn!”

I smiled to myself, taking it as a small sign, but a good sign. The day I left for Pakistan there was a children’s choir singing in the lobby of the Hong Kong airport.

The sweet voices of Chinese children greeted my ears; they were singing “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” in English.

“…to face unafraid, the plans that we made…”

I was heading to a new country, one with security concerns. Signifi cant portions of the country are in a state of war. Secessionist feelings are rife in more than one province. Meanwhile the country’s infrastructure lacks an adequate supply of electricity, water or gas. Was there anything ahead of me that would challenge me “to face [it] unafraid?”

Two familiar things greeted me upon my midnight arrival in Karachi airport—the friendly face of Fr. Tomas King, the Columban mission unit coordinator, and the golden arches of McDonald’s. We did not indulge in any fast food but headed for the Columban house. The next morning, Fr. King and I set off for the city of Hyderabad where we would stay with Bishop Max Rodrigues who made time to welcome me and made a point of praising the contributions of Columbans.

That evening, I went over to the Hyderabad Cathedral. There were unmistakable signs that Christmas preparations were in high gear. The choir was practicing inside the church, and a large tent was being erected in the courtyard.

Fr. Paul McMahon took me out to a small community attached to the cathedral. En route we passed an ancient citadel as well as shops of all kinds. In the streets, Shiite Muslims were gearing up for Muharram processions, the commemoration of the martyr Hussein, due to reach its peak a few days after Christmas.

The people at the small chapel welcomed me formally with traditional gifts of the Sindh province—a cotton jarak, or shawl, and a Sindhi topi, or cap. In short order I was brought to a neighboring house for a cup of tea, the first of many.

Christmas Eve was a clinic day at the tuberculosis clinic in the parish compound. It was a busy day for Sr. Theresa and Columban lay missionary Carmela. I headed out to one of these smaller places with Fr. Bernard, a diocesan priest from the Philippines who is a Columban associate. He is completing his first year in the parish. When we arrived at the chapel at Dalhart,Talhar, lots of activities were underway including men on the roof of the chapel stringing Christmas lights.

While preparations continued, Fr. Bernard and I called on a couple of the Catholic families living nearby. Two plastic lawn chairs were brought out for us to sit on. As I sat there in the courtyard a cow munched on straw from a manger, like the ones I have seen on a thousand Christmas cards. At the Mass, different ethnic groups — Punjabis and Parkari Kohlis — prayed and sang together, though they tended to sit separately. I was struck by the way some of the people were dressed for the occasion. They too could have posed as shepherds for religious cards.

Two well-attended Masses were held back at the parish compound in Badin. The crowd at Mass on Christmas morning was too big for the church or the school hall, so the Mass was held outdoors under a colorful tent. After Mass there was a program of dances and songs by the children.

After lunch Sr. Theresa, Carmela and I accompanied Fr. Dan O’Connor out to two small settlements where the people live in small houses made of sticks and mud. It turned out to be the highlight of this Christmas for me. The scene could easily have been something from the time of Jesus, a cluster of small mud brick buildings inside a protective wall of thorn bushes. The paterfamilias was a man who had eight sons. I did not get a clear idea of exactly who was who, but it was unimportant.

Before we could begin praying together, we had to have a cup of sweetened milk tea, as tradition dictated. One of the women fetched water from somewhere and arrived with a large basin balanced on her head. She spilled not one precious drop; she has probably been doing it several times a day for years. While we sipped our tea, the children gathered around to color a picture of the stable at Bethlehem.

When Fr. Dan mentioned that this was not our last stop and that we had another settlement to get to before the end of the evening, our host countered by laying down the law of hospitality: “No one leaves my house without eating a meal.” And he was not talking about fast food!

So Mass began, but as the men and children gathered around the table of the Lord, from the corner of my eye, I could see one of the daughters-in-law kneading the chapatti (bread) that we would be served later. Fr. Dan had a picture of the stable at Bethlehem and a set of figurines with him. The cow in the picture looked remarkably like the large cow just to our left who was eating her way through a large bundle of fresh straw that one of the women had carried over on her head.

As the Mass went on, the sun slowly went down in the west. Men and women drew woolen wraps around their shoulders to ward off the chill. I was imagining myself living in an age long past, when the mobile telephone of one of the villagers started ringing insistently!

My momentary escape from the twenty-fi rst century was over. We did not linger over our chapatti, but said our good-byes and headed off for another Mass in another small settlement. Getting there involved driving a four wheel drive truck over a narrow bit of road with drop-offs on both sides.

I would have thought twice about crossing it by bicycle. The catechist got out and directed and Fr. Dan skillfully ferried us across, twice, as we passed the same spot on the return trip.

Except for a little light from fl uorescent flashlights, the last stop looked even more like Bethlehem in 4 B.C.! There was a starry sky overhead, with many more stars than I am used to seeing. But what made it seem so much like the fi rst Christmas was the presence of a baby being rocked in a small hammock suspended from one of the rafters.

Oh Holy Night indeed! From now on I feel that I will not have to imagine the Bethlehem scene but just remember my first Christmas in Pakistan.

Fr. John Burger serves on the Society’s general council in Hong Kong.