Through exchange student’s eyes, we saw Christmas anew


Mari Santani went to Israel with us a few years ago to see the land of the Bible with her own eyes. We first met Mari at Christmas, when unexpected circumstances brought her to our home for a season. Thanks to that visit, we saw Christmas with fresh eyes. Here’s the column I wrote for today’s (Macon) Telegraph. Have a blessed Christmas Eve!

It only took a few seconds to realize why the lady on the phone was frantic.

The holidays were upon us, the last day of school was hours away, and plans to house an exchange student from Japan had fallen through.

“Is there someone in your church who might be able to take her for the holidays?” she asked.

Maybe it was the spirit of giving, or maybe it was the Spirit of God. Or perhaps it was the fact that our house was already home to three girls. What would one more hurt?

“Sure,” I said. “We’ll take her.”

And thus began one of the best Christmases of our lives.

Mari was young, polite and inquisitive. Coming from a country where every square meter of land is precious, she was overwhelmed by the size of Walmart and intrigued by the concept of cemeteries. Using so much land to bury people? It seemed incomprehensible!

Her eyes lit up when she saw the sign for Taco Bell, since in her language, “tako” means “octopus.” We laughed at the idea of fast-food tentacles and then pretended to be disappointed when she couldn’t find tako in our small-town grocery store.

Above all other things, it was Christmas that held Mari spellbound.

Mari attended Christmas parties with us and helped us decorate our home. Her eyes sparkled at the lights in our neighborhood. She cut down our tree at a Christmas tree farm and then made delicate origami birds for its branches.

My wife let her help with some of the Christmas cooking and she attended the Christmas services at our church. I doubt she understood everything we said in South-Georgia English. But there’s no doubt she understood the joy and excitement of all who’d come to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Most of these annual rituals – so routine for us – were new experiences for Mari. Sure, she’d seen the commercial side of Christmas in Japan. But she’d never lived through a Christmas season that kept a family nativity set at the center of the celebration.

Because of our guest, we saw Christmas with new eyes, too.

The words of Matthew and Luke are so familiar to us, it’s easy to let December come and go without seeing the wonder of it all. Is there a more amazing story?

Let’s see … there was a girl who heard from an angel … a baby conceived by the Spirit of God … a hard journey to Bethlehem … more angels appearing to shepherds … visiting magi … a murderous king … and a baby, lying in a manger.

The concept of God becoming one of us? Sometimes it still seems impossible to understand. It can seem much more impossible to explain to others.

About all you can really say is that God loves us. He loves us so much, He wanted to be with us. He loves us so much, He was willing to do whatever it would take to bring us back into a right relationship with Him.

Step No. 1 was being born. The Creator of everything who had always been and always would be, decided to enter our world the same way you and I did. By being “God with us,” Immanuel could finally show us how to live. Even in death, he pointed us to life.

It’s really an amazing story. How I wanted Mari to know it for herself!

But going from her first Christmas with a believing family to understanding the incarnation is a big, big leap.

It was years later, Mari told us, before she took that leap of faith.

She had found some Christian friends and a small church near her home in Japan. She searched for the truth in many places, but she always came back to the amazing story of the God who loved her.

Finally, in a simple prayer of trust, Mari decided that Jesus was the Answer she’d been searching for. The peace came immediately. The joy was overwhelming. The love was forever. She still radiates a love for Jesus that delights us.

It’s Christmas Eve.

Before this day is over, find a way to encounter the story as if you’ve never heard it before. Try to see it with fresh eyes. Let the news that God loves you wash over you as if it were the best gift you’ve ever received.

As my favorite Christmas song puts it, fall on your knees and hear the angels singing. For this, my friend, is the most divine night of them all!

Andy Cook is a resident of Peach County and the founder of Experience Israel Now.