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A Very Special Christmas

As a year ends and a new one begins many of my friends send out their year-end letters telling you all their news of the year. It’s mostly good stuff. In years gone by I used to put together something small as well but in recent times have not found much to write about.

This year is different because I have had one of the most quietly joyous Advent and Christmas seasons. I feel really blessed and while I have not exactly been bursting to tell everyone about it, enough people have asked me about it that I thought it would be worthwhile to arrange my thoughts into a coherent story, to explain in a little more detail why I say I had a really great Christmas.

Part of my wonder about this story is that it is something that is the culmination of two stories, of two threads with years in the weaving. Individually they would have been wonderful enough but together they have given me a Christmas to remember.

The first thread is the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Although I have heard about it ever since Virginia brought it to Singapore, and indeed even though she gave me a CGS book to read hoping it would inspire me, I was not called to the work until the later part of 2011. I was enjoying my year off Catechism but was trying to find a way to square the circle of being a catechist and yet being free to pursue my very secular weekend activities. Why not try CGS? Marjorie suggested. Give Julie a call to find out when the next course is. She should be able to get you a place. And the rest, as they say, is history.

CGS resonated so deeply in me that immediately after the course I eagerly jumped into not just one but two sessions every week. And after going for my second formation course I took on yet another session at the beginning of this year.

Also about 8 years ago a small group of parishioners from Queen of Peace Church decided to visit Cambodia to see how they could help there as part of the Advent preparation. Their Advent Cambodia Trip grew in numbers and activities such that for the past few years some friends from St Ignatius also became involved. They told me about the trip but once again I did not feel called. Until I discovered that they brought CGS catechists along. The thought of bringing CGS to Cambodia was too much to resist.

And so after being called for so many years, my belated ‘yes’ brought together two threads this last December. The first week I was on yet another CGS course and the third week brought me with ACTS (now standing for A Call To Share) to Cambodia.

Every CGS course is a doorway into a world of wonder and awe. It is not so much something that you learn with your mind as something you experience with your soul. Among the many riches of this course I was introduced to the secret of the Mystery of Faith as well as a spine-tingling and very emotional Pentecost experience that built upon all we have seen and done in the atrium.

This course was also different from the earlier courses because it brought together course mates who were much more experienced in the ways of CGS, having worked with the materials for as much as 5 or 6 years. Listening to their experiences brought relevance and context to potentially academic and arid topics.

And so one week after being fired up with a renewed appreciation of the goings on at Mass I had the opportunity to participate at Mass every morning during the ACTS mission to Cambodia. Every morning the readings reminded us of the approaching feast of Christmas and then the sermon would remind us of why we were in Cambodia.

Most evenings too there was time for reflection and sharing on our experiences of the day. Being on a mission also gave an additional layer of meaning to the simple Reconciliation Service that was held during one of the evening reflection periods.

Presenting CGS to Cambodian children in Phnom Penh is not without its challenges. There is as yet no atrium and no materials so everything had to be brought up from Singapore. And on top of that there was the language barrier. Working together with my fellow catechists and the Salesian sisters who run the school to overcome these challenges was a joy in itself.  The first couple of days before we started our sessions we had to hurriedly prepare our art response materials.  The nuns allowed us to use their two Chapels and also provided interpreters to help us with the language. Also, the children were keen to speak and learn English and we were pleasantly surprised at the standard of English among the older children.

Generally speaking while working in a CGS atrium it will take a year to revisit a particular presentation. During the mission we were giving the same presentation to different classes. In between we had the opportunity to discuss what went well and what did not so we were learning better ways to give the presentations.

After giving a presentation we would ask the children some questions to wonder or contemplate on.  On more than one occasion, I was nearly overcome with emotion when I heard their response. I was amazed by the depth of the sense of spirituality in the Cambodian children. Their grasp and interpretation of God and the bible is truly one of faith, and so the kingdom of God truly belongs to the children.Similarly, the answers given by our Singaporean teens during our evening reflections (that I facilitated) helped me to see things in new and unexpected ways.

Yes, in some ways coming back to celebrate Christmas with family and fellow parishioners amid the bright lights and clean streets of Singapore was a bit of an anti-climax. Yet there was enough of the shepherds’ awe when the angels appeared and their joy upon seeing the Child in the manger remained with me to make it a Very Special Christmas.

I will treasure those gifts for a long time to come.

Mark Tan - ACTS Phnom Penh 2013 Mission (CGS)


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