During the last week of Advent, a beautiful, seven-week-old baby girl was baptized at a Redemptorist parish in downtown Bangkok, Thailand. It was no ordinary baptism. This little girl – who remained miraculously tranquil during the proceedings – as well as her parents, are Pakistani Catholics, asylum seekers on the run from Muslim extremists and forced to live illegally in Thailand. Their plight and this baptism signify a gripping manifestation of the true meaning of Christmas.
There are seventeen members of this extended family now, from the great-grandparents down to the most recent addition. They live in two tiny one-room apartments a stone’s throw from the Catholic parish, packed in like sardines at night. They came to Bangkok four Advents past, a few days before Christmas, following a series of violent assaults in their home city of Karachi.
One member of the family, a young physician, was falsely accused by Muslim extremists of intentionally tearing a page out of the Quran – in Pakistan a blasphemous and punishable offense. His sister-in-law, a nurse at a Karachi hospital, was accused of attempting to force a Muslim patient to break his Ramadan fast and trying to convert him. Relatives of the patient shot at the nurse and her husband as they fled the hospital. Two teenage girls in the family were seized and publicly set on fire. A fatwa and a police warrant were issued against them. Knowing that their options were either death or forced conversion, they fled.
Living in Bangkok since December 2012, they have become the parish “utility infielders,” doing any odd-job required by the church: handing out bulletins, helping with the collection, setting up before weddings and funerals, and cleaning up afterward. This family defies the usual perceptions of asylum seekers and refugees as poor, weak, and helpless – except for the beneficent actions of Western donors. Rather, they are a hardy, hardscrabble bunch, with an independent, indefatigable work ethic.
Nor does the father of the baptized girl fit the common stereotypes of a refugee. With a bodybuilder’s stature and handsome physique, he exudes the poise of a Bollywood film protagonist rather than someone cowering in fear of his persecutors. If the jihadists were ever willing to engage in a fair fight, he’d kick their teeth in. He now spends his days directing traffic at the parish.
Their story in some respects mirrors the paradox of the Holy Family at Christmas. They appear to us at first poor and unassuming: Joseph the older, kindly patron of the young virgin, Mary. She, the quiet and humble Jewish peasant. Yet as their story unfolds, with messages from Gabriel and hosts of heaven proclaiming God’s glory in little Bethlehem, we recognize they are no ordinary family. Surrounded by an impenetrable angelic fortress reminiscent of Elisha, Mary and Joseph stand in assured defiance of the powers that be. They will not be intimidated, not for all the soldiers and swords of the world.
So it was with the Pakistani child’s baptism, a “sign of contradiction” similar to that of the baby Jesus. Like Christ’s presentation in the Temple, her baptism is a veritable sign of her family’s faith and faithfulness to Christ. They are in Bangkok, thousands of miles from home, because they refused to submit to the demands of Muslim extremists who threatened them with conversion or subjugation.
To baptize this infant girl, publicly, with Thai police officers only blocks away, is a confident, rebellious act of Christian piety. “You cannot have our bodies, or our souls,” it proclaims to those seeking to snuff out the Gospel and its adherents. This little girl, they assert with saintly swagger, is claimed for Christ. She now, pulsing with the Holy Spirit and clothed in righteousness, carries more power within her than all the authorities of the earth. She is in her own way “a light for revelation to the Gentiles,” such as the Christ-child.
Not that the circumstances of such a Christmas are ones anyone would desire for themselves. Jesus’ parents probably did not want to go to Bethlehem, Mary likely full-term in her pregnancy before they embarked from Nazareth. They certainly would have preferred not to flee Herod, leaving their home for an unknown Egypt. Yet again and again God used their suffering as a means to a far greater, unexpected end: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
Likewise with my Pakistani friends: they would prefer not to have left Karachi. They have little interest in making Bangkok their permanent home. Yet here they are, by the grace of God. What makes their experience so spiritually potent is their indelible faith that God is with them, that He will not abandon them, and that He is accomplishing His purpose amidst what seems the worst of circumstances. That, it seems to me, is the crux of Advent, and the weight of Christmas.
Yet they are not otherworldly superheroes, blithely existing in some ethereal realm above our own. Their daily joys and struggles are the same as ours. After the baptism, a five-year-old member of the family went tearing down the aisle. His father grabbed his arm, pulled him close and with an oh-so-familiar parental ire, scolded, “Don’t run in here! You have NO manners!”
Their courage may be of a transcendent quality, their particular travails exceptionally bitter, but their broader story of suffering and hope is our own, just as the Christmas story is ours. We all await an end to our wilderness wanderings, a place prepared for us by God where we will be nourished by our Savior forever.
Yet even now the rejoicing is ours, those of us whose testimony declares that we loved not our lives for the sake of our God, “even unto death.”