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Behold, the unexpected star

Sometimes, the grace of Christmas is still revealed where you least expect it

By Laurelle Callaghan

In a small tent outside a bombed hanger, we gathered for worship as we had done many times before.

We had been in Kosovo since June 1999; our home on this foreign soil was a village of tents adjacent to an abandoned airstrip approximately 30 miles outside the country’s capital, Pristina. We lived daily with the reality of the bombings that had taken place in the previous months — the destroyed buildings, the displaced families. Our worship community had grown close; we were a family of about 15 that had survived physical hardship as we struggled to be peacemakers in a warring land.

It was a busy day, like all others in the camp, with convoys delivering supplies to soldiers, helicopters flying routine surveillance missions, preparations being made to return to Canada. It was cold. A mixture of wet snow and rain pelted down, and we slipped our military overcoats on and off during the service in synch with blasts of hot air pumped into the tent from a heater. Members of my congregation had slipped away from work to gather for worship; those who couldn’t come had checked in earlier, reminding me to pray for them, too. Even though they couldn’t be there, they still wanted to be included.

It didn’t look much like a typical Canadian Christmas service. We sat on benches with no backs. A small table held lit candles. As the chaplain, I stood just in front of the group. There was no pipe organ or choir, but we sang the familiar carols and made a joyful noise before the Lord. As we celebrated the birth of our Saviour, I realized that our experiences over the last few months had drastically altered the way we viewed Christmas.

We had been worried about celebrating Christmas away from our families. We worried that our experience, our worship, our Christmas, would be lacking because we were not in familiar surroundings.

What we came to realize as we made our journey toward Christmas is that Christmas is not as much about being comfortable as being comforted. We can in no way believe that Mary and Joseph were comfortable in their journey to Bethlehem, but we know that they and the world were comforted by the gift of a Saviour.

As we sang Silent Night, God’s comfort came to us in many ways. We had survived noisy and unsettling nights during our tour; we lived daily with the destruction and devastation of bombed homes, churches and buildings; we had cleared land mines from school grounds; we had stood watch in villages to keep the peace. Having seen the destruction of war, we were ready for peace — we were ready for a silent night. As we sang, it seemed that this hymn would forever have a different meaning for those of us gathered inside that tent.

We passed the peace, lit candles and celebrated communion with an intensity that I had never before experienced. We were at the forefront of creating peace in a troubled part of the world, and the message of our faith became part of our lived experience. We celebrated Christmas with a community of faithful friends who loved us in the moment and with whom we shared a common bond of hope.

As it happened, we were celebrating Christmas on Dec. 10. While we had prepared to be in Kosovo for Christmas Day, redeployment plans changed and we would be returning to Canada early. But as a worshipping community, we needed to celebrate together. And it was Christmas for us.

A few days before Dec. 25, we returned to Canada to be bombarded by lights, parties and shopping. It was overwhelming. I attended worship in my local parish but missed my military family, with whom I had shared the hardships and joys of the previous year.

I listened to the choir, sang the carols and feltlike I was celebrating Christmas in an unusual place. But when it came time to sing Silent Night and pass the light of Christ, I remembered our Christmas celebration thousands of miles away. I knew then that Christmas is a spiritual state of mind, not tied to a geographic area, a climate or even a day, but tied to the love and comfort of a community.

Lt.-Col. Laurelle Callaghan has served as a military chaplain for 20 years and has been deployed to Kosovo and Afghanistan. She is currently serving as area chaplain for Land Forces Western Area, based in Edmonton.
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