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A different Christmas Eve

    Jan 11, 2005
-by Philip Bender

Phil Bender (back row, left, Hamilton Mennonite Church), Mennonite Church Canada Witness worker teaches English and engages in opportunities to explore faith issues with his class of medical students at Chongqing University of Medical Sciences in China. After sharing the Chrsitmas story with his class, Jean (back row, 2nd from right), decided to stay home and read the story of Jesus birth with her daughter this past Christmas eve.

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Phil Bender (right), Mennonite Church Canada Witness worker shares a laugh with some of his students. Bender (Hamilton Mennonite Church) teaches English and engages in opportunities to explore faith issues with his class of medical students at Chongqing University of Medical Sciences in China. Jean, at left, was particularly reflective about the Christmas story.


Chongqing, China— This past Christmas Eve, Jean and her 9-year-old daughter decided to do something different.

Jean is a cardiologist in a major hospital in Chongqing, a booming commercial centre in west-central China. She is also a member of the Chinese communist party, though she seldom talks about it. And Jean is a student in the Advanced English Program at the Chongqing University of Medical Sciences, where I teach with Mennonite Church Canada Witness and its partner, China Educational Exchange (CEE).

One of my courses is “Background to America.” In December I included a unit on “Christmas in Canada and the USA.” I talked about both the secular and religious aspects of Christmas.

Religion is a puzzle to Jean and her 14 classmates, most of whom are doctors or health care professionals. About their only exposure to religious practice has been the Buddhist rituals some of their parents or grandparents observed.

Nor did my students study religion in school. Jean and her friends tell me that they were taught that there is no God, and that humans are in control of the world. When religion was mentioned at all, it usually was derided as superstition or dismissed as a pursuit unworthy of educated people.

Little wonder, then, that neither Jean nor her classmates have ever been inside a church. Their impression of Christianity has come mainly from the European cathedrals and Western weddings they have seen in films. One student, though, does remember a neighbor who had a Bible.

But having had little contact with religion has not stifled Jean or her colleagues’ curiosity about the Christian faith. Sometimes during and after my classes last fall, they would ask such questions as, “What is the difference between Catholics and Christians? Where do Mennonites fit in? Are a priest and a pastor the same thing?” They also wondered about the Bible, Jewish-Christian relations, and Mennonite child dedication rituals. I finally decided to offer an extra voluntary class to systematically address these questions. Nearly all the students came.

The Mennonite Church Canada Witness/CEE ministry in China is one of “presence.” It is a ministry in which seeds of faith often sprout unseen and the leaven of the Spirit works silently. Since Chinese law forbids foreigners from proselytizing, we teachers must share our faith tactfully and sensitively, as opportunities arise.

The Advanced English students know that my American CEE colleague and I are Christian. “Though we are not religious, we respect CEE teachers for their faith,” they told me. “We appreciate that you have come to China. We are impressed that you are willing to work for such low salaries.”

Also, my students’ Chinese program director has told them that Mennonites have a “strict morality.” “We respect your moral standards,” they said, adding, “Today China faces moral decay. Too many people are chasing money.”

During the week before Christmas, as part of our study of American “culture,” we spent a class learning some familiar Christmas songs. My students enjoyed singing and clapping to “Jingle Bells.” They also appreciated “Silent Night.” And they were especially moved by “What Child is This?”

Then we read the Christmas story from the gospels of Matthew and Luke. None had heard it before. Though there were bemused looks and suppressed snickers from these scientifically-minded doctors when we read about pregnant Mary being a virgin, they listened attentively. They seemed intrigued by the shepherds, the angels, and baby Jesus.

Christmas in Chongqing has many North American trappings. Colored lights festoon restaurant facades, Christmas trees rise in front of department stores, and cardboard Santas wink at passers-by from hotel windows. But December 25th in China is not a holiday. For most people it’s an ordinary workday.

Christmas Eve, though, is a time for entertainment and revelry. While Chongqing churches hold worship services (usually well-attended), most people party in restaurants or throng to the city’s central square to enjoy the carnival atmosphere.

Which brings us back to Jean, and her choice this past Christmas eve to do something different. In my Spoken English class on December 24th, I asked the students to talk about what they would do that evening. Most told about their plans to go out and have a good time.

But for Jean another idea had sprouted. “This year I’m going to stay home with my daughter,” she said. “We’ll listen to Christmas music, and maybe I’ll give her a gift.” With a touch of reflection in her voice, she added, “Then we’ll read the Christmas story.”