Oudoom hesitates before he opens the Bible. The little congregation waits as the pastor shakes his head, looks up and takes a deep breath.
“I’ve prepared a sermon for today.” He seems to relax a bit, as if he’s told them everything they should know. “You know: the usual: the shepherds and the star and the three wise men. No place in the inn. Angels singing. Presents.”
Vetfaan glances towards Gertruida, who shrugs in return. Oudoom’s Christmas sermons are very predictable – they’re always the same. Obviously the old man had something different in mind this time.
“But today I feel it is wrong to rehash something you all know by heart. I won’t preach about the history you have heard repeated so often on the 25th of December.” He pauses, gathering his thoughts. “Do you realise that the only mode of transport Jesus ever used – other than his two feet – was a donkey? Although the Bible doesn’t mention Mary riding on a donkey on the way to Bethlehem, the Protoevangelium of James does. And we know He entered Jerusalem on a donkey towards the end of His life. Of course, He used boats as well while on water (when He didn’t walk on it!); but one estimate states that He travelled more than 21,000 miles by foot during his life.
“In those days they had carts and oxen, horses and camels – but He preferred His own two feet.”
“What’s this got to do with Christmas?” Kleinpiet whispers during the pause in Oudoom’s sermon, only to get another shrug from Gertruida.
“In those days the Romans had already established major, paved highways between towns. Julius Caesar started his career as a minister of transport.” Oudoom waits for the subdued laughter to die down. Only Gertruida knows that is true. “And along those roads travelled the traders, the merchantmen, the postal services, the army, those on official errands and ordinary people on their way to weddings, churches, funerals and everyday work. This was the old Internet, the Facebook of ancient times, where people from different backgrounds and countries were thrown together – on a journey together.
“I’ll make it short and sweet.” Oudoom realises his audience isn’t on the same page as he is. “Jesus met people where they were. He didn’t rent the Colosseum to address masses during a rally. He didn’t have a big marketing campaign driven by some famous advertising company. He didn’t dress in an outrageous fashion or used scantily dressed entertainers as an opening act… He simply walked with people. People with dirty feet. People with dusty hair and grimy clothes. People stinking of sweat, unshaven and tired. “
Now Gertruida nods her head. Travelling in Biblical times was a dirty business. Although there were villages and resting places approximately twenty miles apart, she has read in National Geographic how arduous journeying through the desert-like conditions in the Middle East may be. She closes her eyes to see the throng of people, walking this way and that, making their ways to distant destinations. And there, amongst them, the Man in the white robes, chatting away the miles on His way to the next stop.
Yes, Servaas thinks, He does that. Jesus may be spoken of in church, but it is in the lonely hours on Life’s road that He takes time to meet each of us. While we’re on our way to a personal destination, He pops up next to us to guide us to a Place of Rest; a place where we can wash off the fatigue of struggling along; a haven we all strive towards…
“So….” Oudoom spreads his arms wide in a benediction, “it is my prayer that we should follow His example. During the year, we’ve had many, many visitors in Rolbos. People stopped by to meet us – from more than 100 countries – 25000 times. That’s more than one for every mile Jesus walked. Now, my question is: what was the result of those encounters? Were we able to make them laugh with us? Cry with us? Did they leave our little town with a smile or a frown? Did we do what we were supposed to do: meet them where they were?”
Vetfaan looks down at his farmers boots. Well, he thinks, we don’t have any masks in this town. We celebrated the good times and grieved the sad ones. We laughed at the stupidity of our politics and the shallowness of believing possessions make people happy. We were saddened by loss: superstorms and idiots with guns made us cry. And through it all, He was there, at our side, walking along with us – and we weren’t even always aware of His soft footsteps.
Oudoom smiles down at his little flock. “Please join me in wishing our visitors a Christmas on the road. May each of them, as they journey to a next destination, be aware of the travel companion who’ll never leave them. May their feet follow His, and may His Place of Rest await them at the end of their journey.
“More importantly: this is Christmas. In simple terms, we celebrate the Life of Jesus – a remarkable life of sacrifice, hardship and perseverance. Why do we do it? I’ll tell you: it’s because He came to tell us – not only about forgiveness and redemption – but about kindness and love. This is the day we remember that, and unfortunately, this is the day many people forget about it as well.”
Oudoom looks up, allowing his eyes to gaze out, through the open doors of his little church, towards the distant horizon. He imagines he can see people all over the world – weary people, dusty people, sad and lonely people, even people worrying about the year ahead. People on their way to distant locations, dragging themselves along on a journey with an uncertain end. People struggling with loss. Grieving people. He shakes his head, as if to clear his vision. Are there, amongst the thousands of people, so few happy faces?
Without looking down again, he clears his throat, hoping his words will be heard in the hearts of every visitor to Rolbos.
“Go now. Be aware that you’ll never travel alone. And may Goodness and Kindness follow you henceforth, for Christmas is not just a day. It’ll last as long as you listen for the gentle footstep at your side. It’s up to you to make Christmas last.”
Okay. Close your eyes. See Vetfaan smiling at you. Precilla’s hug is warm and gentle. Gertruida and Judge pat you gently on the back. Kleinpiet’s handshake is firm. Servaas will tell you – in a happier voice than usual – that he wishes you well. Oudoom and Mevrou invite you over for coffee and rusks.
And Boggel, standing on his crate behind the counter, presents his cheek for a Christmas kiss. See: he’s even attached a piece of mistletoe to the rafter above the bar.
May the good wishes from the little town in the Kalahari brighten your day. And may your Christmas last longer than 24 hours – just listen for those footsteps next to you, and it will.