This is my first Advent season in Thailand in forty years – and it caught me by surprise. There were some things that I expected to see from years past (like stars made of bamboo and colored cellophane with lights inside) that I have not seen. There were some things that I did not expect to see in this place (like evergreen wreaths hanging in a church) that I did see. But perhaps the things that drove home the fact that I am among Christians, but in a new and different place, were the things that were the same, but not the same as in the USA. To the left is a photo of the Christmas “tree” in front of Wattana Church in Bangkok. Like so many Christmas trees here, it has no tree, just lights in the shape of an evergreen tree – something that looks beautiful at night, but is pretty unsightly in the daytime when it is just a mass of wires. However, surrounding this central tree are dozens of palm trees that are also decorated with tiny LED lights and they are beautiful – day and night!
On the same day that I took my Thai Competency Exam in Bangkok, the Bangkok Combined Choir and Orchestra was performing Handel’s “Messiah” at Wattana Church. It was pure serendipity that I was in town on the same weekend as the performance – or, as I like to think of it, it was a “God thing.” I caught the Skytrain from the Bangkok Christian Guest House to Asoke station and walked down Soi 19 to the church. When I was a teenager, International Church of Bangkok used this sanctuary. I completed Confirmation Classes and was confirmed in worship in this church building. I was a member of ICB through my high school years in Bangkok. During those years, I also sang the “Messiah” with the Bangkok Combined Choir, which has performed Handel’s “Messiah” every year since the end of World War II. Needless to say, the evening brought back a lot of memories for me. It was a stunningly beautiful performance and, incredibly, the performance included almost the entire oratorio. What a way to usher in the Advent season!!
But perhaps the most unusual usual part of Advent for me was the Advent Wreath Lighting that took place at First Church in Chiang Mai. I expected four purple candles and a white candle (or three purple candles and a pink candle and a white candle) and what I saw instead was a dark blue candle, a yellow candle, a green candle, a red candle and a white candle. After the service, I asked Ajarn Boonyawat, the pastor of First Church, to share the tradition of the Advent Wreath with me. He told me that the Church of Christ in Thailand adopted this Advent Wreath tradition. He then explained that the dark blue candle symbolizes the prophets who told of the Messiah’s birth, the yellow candle symbolizes the angels who also announced the birth of a Savior, the green candle symbolizes the shepherds who ran to see the Child and spread the word to others, and the red candle symbolizes Bethlehem, the small, insignificant town that God chose as the birthplace of Jesus, the greatest gift the world has ever received. The white candle symbolizes Peace and the Prince of Peace who comes to bring peace. How strange and how wonderful to be in the midst of a season that is at once both familiar and totally different this year! It has brought new meaning to worship each Sunday to hear the familiar stories read from Scripture and to experience this season in a new way. May God bless your season with something new and different as you also hear the old, old story once again!