It was my first Christmas in Syria.

The Christmas spirit hasn’t yet infected Syria. Sometimes in the hustle and bustle and commercialism of Christmas in America, that sounds dreamy. But celebrating Christian holidays in a Muslim country poses some unique challenges. For one, Christmas is a normal work day. Even in a city as sizable as Damascus, it was difficult to find anything remotely Christmasy. Christmas didn’t feel special, didn’t feel like the most important holiday of the year.

I had spent several months in Syria endeavoring to learn Arabic – not an easy task. Arabic is challenging, but it’s also two languages in one: the local dialect changes from country to country and often city to city, while classical Arabic is written and read throughout the entire Arab World, but spoken only by news reporters. I was studying at the University of Damascus, with foreign dignitary classmates, so my vocabulary tended toward classical, and specifically mostly words like embassy and diplomacy and ambassador and words that weren’t so useful in everyday life.

I supplemented my vocabulary on my own time. I learned words and phrases I could use to do the work God had called me to Syria to do: shine the light of Jesus in a place where it was dim at best.

That Christmas, I decorated my home. I wanted to celebrate, but I also knew it would open doors to explain my faith. I set up a tree, pulled out the sentimental Christmas items I’d brought from America, and hung a stocking on the front door of my apartment. My curious neighbors came to visit and, as they took in all the unusual things they were seeing, I could see bafflement on their faces. This was a world they knew nothing of.

I was struck anew what I had observed little by little throughout my time in Syria: They didn’t know anything about Christmas and our holiday traditions. But more than that, they knew nothing about Jesus. These people were lost. They had truly never heard the gospel story.

So I explained the “giant sock” on my door and used it to segue into an explanation of the Christmas story. I explained how we give gifts to honor and remember Jesus, the gift God had given to mankind. I explained who Jesus was, how he lived a sinless life, died so we could be free, and rose again. It took every ounce of energy to struggle through the explanation I had anticipated and prepared for in Arabic.

I finished, and noted my guests were growing impatient. “Yes, yes,” they said, “but what about the fat man, the little people, and the gazelles?”

As we live dead in nations that don’t proclaim Jesus, we have to be careful that we’re importing Jesus, and not our culture and ways of celebrating. It’s important to make the distinction, because the fat man, the little people, and the gazelles don’t have the power to transform us and give us eternal life.

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