I awoke to the song “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” playing in my head, followed by a wave of nostalgia. But reality rushed in, reminding me Christmas was only a short three days away and home was a long 5000 miles away, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.
Not that my husband and I weren’t thrilled to be brand-new missionaries in Japan. Nor was our situation especially difficult. Sacrifice had been limited so far to enduring our mountain cabin’s icy floors, doing without chocolate chips and other familiar treats, and struggling to communicate in the yet-unlearned Japanese language.
Our modest stack of Christmas cards reflected our recent change of address to Karuizawa, Japan. Homesickness for all we had left behind tumbled through—contrary to the common belief missionaries, no matter how isolated, are immune to loneliness.
I swung my feet onto the cold floor and resolved to put on the garment of praise. I hummed a snatch of “Joy to the World” as I surveyed our scantily furnished living room. Knowing we were picking up a load of used furniture in Tokyo brightened my outlook.
The following day our family of five boarded a train for a two-and-one-half hour ride down the mountains. Shortly afterward we were enjoying the hospitality of the houseparents at our mission’s hostel. Christmas away from home was brightening up.
Originally, we had planned to load our furniture onto a truck and head back to our mountain cabin the next morning, December 24th. As I thought about all five of us shoehorned into the cab of the borrowed pickup and winding up the mountains, I regretted our decision. Plus, the idea of returning to our cold and empty cabin on Christmas Eve, made it easy to say “Yes!” when we were invited to spend Christmas at the hostel.
We rearranged our plans. My husband would drive the truck laden with furniture back to Karuizawa, unload the contents, and return with our wrapped and waiting presents in time for a Christmas Eve celebration with me and our children.
All went well until Milt returned to Tokyo. Unfamiliar with the tangled maze of highways, he missed a turn and got lost in the labyrinth and streets. By the time he got his bearings, he found himself on the other side of that vast city.
He phoned to tell us the disappointing news—he wouldn’t be home until midnight. I was crushed. “What kind of Christmas is this?” I moaned. “No presents, no tree of our own, and now no husband!”
I had so wanted our first Christmas on the mission field, far from home, to be a special one—an occasion we wouldn’t forget. And now it seemed we’d remember this one, but for all the wrong reasons.
Trying to make the best of things, I asked our hosts if the children and I could have some time alone in their living room. They graciously agreed to reroute all “people traffic” after supper.
As the children and I sat on the floor around the hostel’s tree, I began to read the familiar Christmas story. At first my words were flat, like our deflated hopes for the evening. But as I continued I saw something about that first Christmas I’d never seen before.
My “right” to be home for Christmas, surrounded by family, friends, immersed in all the familiar traditions of the season, contrasted sharply with everyone in Luke’s story.
None of the characters who were to meet that night had stayed home for the holidays. Joseph and Mary had made an inconvenient, even dangerous, trip far from home. The shepherds had left their familiar hills to search the sleepy town of Bethlehem. The wise men were camped somewhere unfamiliar on their journey to adore Jesus. Even the angels left their heavenly abode to declare “Joy to the World.”
I smiled at the thought we also had left the comfort of our country to herald the same Good News. And, amazing grace, at the top of the list of people away from home was Jesus Christ Himself! Instead of reigning in glory with His Father, our Lord had spent His first Christmas in a barn.
Truth shone like Bethlehem’s star into my heart: we shared the same circumstances as all the people in the Christmas story. Like them, we were part of the fellowship of those far from home and family for the sake of the Gospel.
Of course, I savored the thought of spending the holidays on our first furlough back home with our growing clan. The privilege of being surrounded by family and all the familiar celebration customs would be a pleasure. But those times of being together for the holidays were gifts, not “rights”—Presents of love and sacrifice, because Jesus, and all the Holy Night participants, had been willing to be away from home that first Christmas.