Monthly Archives: December 2012

Caroling and Christmas

“How long does the caroling usually last?”  I casually asked the woman sitting next to me.   The Romanian Pentecostal church service—over an hour of music performed by a brass band, choir, and orchestra followed by two sermons lasting over another hour— had just come to a close, and now  we were preparing to rehearse the handful of songs we would be singing during the Christmas Eve caroling.

“Last year we started at 9:30 p.m. and we finished at 4:30 a.m.”

I gasped and stared at my new friend,  shocked.  “Excuse me? This lasts all night?”

“Yes, but last year we only did 20 houses and this year there are 25 on the list.”  Little did I know that most of the young people do the caroling over the three nights that make up Romania’s Christmas celebrations.

Romania is laden with numerous and rich Christmas traditions —some of which, like the caroling tradition,  date to a  pre-christian origin.  Many of those, particularly the ones with Christian overtones, were repressed during the Communist years  between 1947-1989.

“Going caroling has special meaning for me,” my Romanian friend told me.  IMG_3625“During Communism, caroling was the one time Christians could engage in Christian activity outside of the church.   I looked forward to it all year long.”

“Don’t people get annoyed when you start singing songs outside of their house at 3 in the morning?”  I asked her niece.

“I remember when I was a little girl I was too excited to sleep the night we knew the carolers were coming.  We would stay up all night and wait for them, with cakes and fruits and tea.”IMG_3627

And indeed, at every one of the 25 houses we visited, young and old came out to hear our two songs, sung in perfect 4-part harmony. Afterward, they carried around trays of cakes, fruits, sandwiches, urging us to take more.

“This house has the best cakes,” one girl informed me. “You have to try this one!”

But I was no longer fooled—I had heard that claim at the last four houses and my stomach was already groaning in protest.  I looked at my watch:  1 a.m.  and 9 houses down.  “Wow,” I thought, “we have a long way to go.”  I was tired—but thoroughly enjoying the experience of immersing myself in another culture’s tradition.  My Romanian lyrics were even getting better (or so I assured myself) with each house—I would belt out the few words I had mastered and then let my voice sink to a faint hum for the many that seemed impossible to pronounce.

As we got in the car to go to the next house, the niece handed me a napkin with a piece of cake.  “This is the best cake—you have to try it.”  Sighing, I thanked her and took a bite.  When in Romania….

I was amazed and gratified that most of the caroling group was made up of young people (Because indeed, who can handle staying up all night for three nights in a row other than people who are 25 and under?).  The young people are actively involved in the music of this 2000 member Romanian Pentecostal Church.  Rich music seems to be interwoven in the church’s DNA, and the orchestra’s occupants range from professional musicians to young children who are just learning their IMG_3612instrument.  The result is an ongoing and evolving pool of musicians.

For these Romanian Pentecostals, the Christmas IMG_3611festivities center around the church community, as they attend numerous services throughout the three days of Christmas.  Although so many services were a bit daunting for someone like myself who usually only attends a Christmas Eve service in America, I found myself challenged by the passion and sincerity with which the birth of Christ was celebrated.IMG_3602


An outward facing hermit

Peace radiated from his calm presence in a way that invited me to step closer into the warm circle of his hospitality. I could tell he was a man of prayer and love—his serenity was not put on like a piece of clothing, but was part of his natural essence.

“God called me in one moment, ” Father Davor* remembered.  “It was 1991, the war in Croatia had just begun, and I had come to church.  I was a typical teenager, not really that interested in priests or church.  But that day, I saw a priest wearing the Pauline Father white robe and I heard a voice in my heart say, ‘Follow me in the way that he does.'”

Father Davor belongs to the order of St. Paul the First Hermit, a Catholic order formed in the 13th century and based on the life of the man tradition holds to be the first Christian hermit after John the Baptist.  Paul, only a teenager himself,  fled into the Egyptian desert during the  persecutions of the Roman Emperor Decius around 250 A.D. Although this order flourished in different times in history, now there are only 500 monks spread over 70 monasteries worldwide.

“The journey was not easy,” Father Davor said.  “Although my parents were dedicated Catholics, this calling had not been their hope for me.  Also, the closest theological training for this order was in Poland—I was one Croatian among 70 Polish monks. Twice in my seven years of study I packed my bags to come home.”

The three vows of the order are chastity, poverty, and obedience, but Father Davor struggled to connect some of the discussions and Biblical teaching by his superiors with actual life.  “Why don’t we go to our brother Baptists and hear their sermons?”  He asked one priest after a discussion on ecumenism.

“No, is not possible.  They are too different from us.”

But most of all, he longed for some kind of experience with God—although he loved the theological training, it seemed cold to him.

He formed a prayer group with some of the other priests-in-training, and every evening while others would watch t.v., they would pray.  “We were hoping to have some kind of experience with the Holy Spirit, ” he said, “but we thought that someone needed to lay on hands  and pray for us who had the gift of tongues.”  So, they invited a charismatic priest into one of their prayer sessions, and as he prayed for them, Father Davor had an experience that forever changed his life.

“Before this experience, it was like I was looking in the fog.  I was hearing, but I didn’t hear; I was reading but I didn’t read.  After the Holy Spirit came upon me, the fog passed and I understood I was beloved of God. I understood that only Jesus was my Savior—not my superior, not my best friend, and not even,” Father Davor said with a mischievous smile, “David Wilkerson**.”

After this experience, Father Davor found he had a new love for people and began to leave the monastery walls to work with the homeless, prostitutes, and drug addicts.  “Christ gave me a passion for unborn children…and for mothers struggling with unexpected pregnancies  living without husbands.”  Now, a priest for 11 years and the head of his order in Croatia,  Father Davor has started a home for single pregnant women who have come out of difficult situations but want to keep their baby.

“My life can really be characterized in two parts, ” Father Davor mused.  “Before the experience with the Holy Spirit, I believed in God and loved God—but without passion.  Afterwards, I had incredible passion for Jesus and his work in the world.”

Father Davor actively fulfills the charisms of his order inside the walls of the monastery—prayer, confession, spiritually forming those who are seeking God, and a commitment to  pray for the life of children, born and unborn.  But his love for people drives him outside of the walls as well, where he joins with both Protestants and Catholics to actively participate in God’s work in the world.

*Name has been changed

**David Wilkerson’s books are very popular with Protestant Christian in this part of the world.