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CHRISTMAS ROOT IN PAGANISM IS GOOD REASON FOR IT TO BE CELEBRATED BY CHRISTIANS – ORITSEJAFOR

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• Oritsejafor
It was interesting talking with the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor on Christmas and the religion he represents.

He took Nigerians and indeed Christians back to the challenge for the essence and reason for the celebration and the need for them to embrace Christ and live in His will and way.

Concerning the controversy that the origin of Christmas is rooted in Roman paganism, he said it is the more reason it should be celebrated as according to him, Satan or his worshippers never created any day. 'God created everyday. Some satan followers seized one of the days to worship satan, and by the grace of God that was recovered in Christmas celebration. That is good news and worthy of celebration. So, there is no need for any controversy on this because the fact of its origin is rather enough reason for it to be celebrated.' Flow with him on this take on the issue and many others about the season.

This is the first Christmas you are celebrating as CAN president. How does it feel?

I am still trying to know what to do. The work is so much. I can't even plan properly now. I think it would take me a few more months to confidently make out my plan because a lot of things just come up… Things just keep coming up. But I think in the next few months, probably when we are one year, and we have stabilised very well, then I would know exactly what my programmes are and follow it the way it should be. But right now, it's unpredictable. Things just come up from everywhere. And some are very serious and important that you just can't say, forget it.

Is this Christmas any different from those of the previous years for you?

Yes, very different. The stakes are higher. For instance, I will be in Israel until December 23/24. Then I would dash to Warri. I have a programme on the 27th. Then the Sultan and I are supposed to have a programme, a joint press conference, in Lagos on December 28. They are arranging it from Nigeria Inter-Religious Council (NIREC). On the 29th, the African Church has a function and I am supposed to be there. December 30 is Sunday, I have to rush and be in Warri. Then on Monday, I have to be in Abuja for a meeting. That is the whole of 2010. The whole thing is so complicated. But anyhow, that is where I find myself and I am happy. Most people know me as a very passionate person. I don't accept a responsibility without making that decision to follow it through.

It is a high level responsibility. I believe that God who enabled me to come into this position has also made provision already; provision for wisdom, provision of strength and health, provision of favour and grace, of human resources because it is human beings that are the most important parts of any project. I believe if the church will be strong, if Nigeria will be strong, God would definitely give me people who will work with me to make the church stronger and to make Nigeria really great.

What really is the true essence of Christmas?
Christmas is a very serious affair. It goes beyond just wining and dining. Unfortunately, Christmas has been commercialised. We can't run away from it. It's a reality. But that is wrong, because that is not what Christmas is all about. I am not saying people shouldn't buy and sell. But the emphasis shouldn't be on that. Emphasis should not even be on food. The emphasis is that it reminds us of God reaching out to man. The Bible says: 'For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.'

So, Christmas is a time, first of all, to sit down and reflect and see how much we value the gift of Jesus Christ. Jesus was, and is a gift to us. Have we accepted the gift? If we have, how does it reflect? How does it show? How do we demonstrate that we have accepted the gift? If I give you a gift, there is a way you behave that shows you appreciate the gift.

Christmas reminds us that we were given another chance as human beings, to return to our creator. Everybody who says he/she is a Christian, and a human being for that matter, should sit back and ask him/herself, what is my relationship with God like? If it is not good, do something to remedy the situation. And fortunately, God is always ready to receive us, and to forgive us. So that is the first thing about Christmas. We must go back to God.

The second is that Christmas is also about giving. God showed the example by giving us His only begotten son.

Is it only journalists who write Xmas. Don't pastors do that?

(Cuts in) I think those pastors who call Xmas do so out of just pure ignorance. I don't think such pastors even realise what they are doing. I know if you asked some, they would tell you, it is not the X or the Christ that matters, but the delivery, the event…what happens, how you take it. That is true. Agreed. But we have to begin somewhere. Begin with the word itself; put it properly. Put it in right perspective. I think it is important. But if there is any ministry or church that does that, let me tell you, most of the time, it is out of ignorance. Yes, I know there are a few who are just stubborn; who feel, who cares, I would do this. But there are many who do it, but don't even realise that they are making a mistake. So if you talk to them, you would be surprised, because they will change it immediately.

What is your Christmas tradition like?
I honestly do not think we have what I can call Christmas tradition. As a child, my Christmas tradition ended with the food. That was a big deal right then. And then there were visiting, families coming and going to families. Unfortunately, as a child I used to carry all kinds of masquerades, all in the name of Christmas. As I grew up, I used to watch children do it and even encouraged them to do it. But all that was in ignorance. I don't know if I should call them Christmas traditions, but those were the kinds of things we saw as traditions. We used to go to church on Christmas Eve, then hopefully on Christmas day, come home and eat a big meal.

But as one came to Christ, the understanding began to come. Based on that understanding, one began to see Christmas beyond the tradition of foods and some of those other things. I started to see it as a time for reflection. I believe very strongly that this is a season for Nigerians to reflect. We have to.

As I got saved and continued with my life, I began to see the real thing. For instance, the first Christmas I did after I got saved, I was on a fast. This was in 1972. I didn't eat at Christmas. I can't They say in the western world, they are in a hurry. But I think in Nigeria, we are in a double hurry. I learnt of FRSC report that says no fewer than 600 persons will die in road crashes this season. For example, on Christmas Eve alone, the number of people who would lose their lives would be incredible, all because they are in a hurry to get things done for Christmas.

There is this unending controversy that Jesus was not born on December 25?

(Prolonged laughter)…Let me be honest with you, I think the controversy is childish. It is unnecessary and unwarranted. Why do I say so? First of all, we are not celebrating a date or a day. We are celebrating a person. Some say He wasn't born on December 26, so when was He born? There is nobody that has the exact date. Nobody. No matter how much they want to argue, they are only guessing.

For example, only you, your mother and father can say when you were born. If you don't give us that information, we won't have it. I can look at you and guess; I think you are so and so date, but I don't really know. So who really knows? It is not recorded. It is not in the Bible. The exact date is not there. You may look at events and try to say, I think it is this date, but I can't really know. So the issue again like I said is that for those who say He wasn't born on December 25, my point is when was He born? Give us the exact date. Give us His birth certificate. Some say He was born in October? Well, that again is guesswork, like I just said. I have met people who said it was in January. So what are you telling me? My point is this; if the whole church agrees that we pick December 25 to celebrate His birth, I think it is good enough for me, because, it is not the date/day but the person.

Also, some people say that December 25 was a day for pagan worship in Rome. In fact, that is the more reason why it should be celebrated. Did Satan make any day? Why do you allow any group of person to take any day? God made every day.

I repeat, Christmas is not about the date or the day, it is about the person – the person of Jesus Christ. So we must remove ourselves from this controversy. Remove ourselves from focussing on the day and the date and begin to look at the person of Jesus Christ. This is my take on it.

The programme your church holds every December 26 in Warri? Is that part of your Christmas tradition?

First of all, this year, the poverty alleviation we hold at WLBC is going to be on December 27 instead of the traditional December 26. We discovered that December 26 is a Sunday. That would complicate a lot of things if we finish two services and then want to go into it.

That programme of the WLBC where we give to the needy during Christmas dates back to ten years ago, at least. It began from this reflection I have been talking about. That is why I said it is important for Nigerians to reflect.

At about Christmas time, I began to think…I always eat rice during Christmas. Is it all what Christmas is all about? I asked myself questions about my personal relationship with God. I corrected a few things that I felt I needed to. I started reading the scripture and it struck me that if truly I have accepted the gift God gave me, then I should show appreciation by also giving gifts to people who deserve them.

I used to go to the prison on Christmas day to spend the whole day. I would take food and other little gifts to the inmates. I did that for a few years. I always would come out a different person – refreshed, happy. Honestly, when I stepped out of that prison, I almost felt that I was going into the prison. It was funny. When I stepped out of the prison yard, it was like I was now going back into prison. It felt like I was actually in freedom while with those inmates in there. And as I stepped out, I would find the hassle, bustle and all these things outside there were dizzying. Going there to share with them brought me so much satisfaction and I began to expand the scope. I began to say to myself: 'Jesus said, I was hungry, you fed me. I was thirsty, you gave me water. I was naked, you clothed me…'

There was a community called Isiokolo, Agbon Kingdom where I went to last year to distribute some materials to the people. I was back there a few Saturdays ago. The turn out was massive. People were trampling on each other. It took us about two hours to control the crowd. It was too much. I didn't even have much to give – just one tricycle, few numbers of motorcycles and helmets and grinding machines. At the end of the day, I saw about 20 disabled people that couldn't rush like the others. So I had to again go back home to arrange something for them. One of them said to me, 'I am disabled, but my wife is not. If she can have a grinding machine, instead of me begging, and asking for help, she can use the grinding machine and we can feed with that.' I was deeply touched.

The impression you give now is that Nigerians are anything but their brothers' keepers. We were not always like this, I am sure. At what point did we lose touch?

I think it all started from the civil war. That is my impression. That is my feeling. If you here before the civil war, I think we were more civil, if I may use that word. We were more like human beings. There was care. There was concern. You know in those days, in Urhobo or Itsekiri, we say olopa, onokpa… It means a man with a baton. That was the way a policeman was known. A policeman wasn't known to carry a gun. His name implied that he carries a baton. That was the best a policeman would carry in those days. Some didn't even have the sticks. But the moment you saw a policeman, you saw the embodiment of government and authority. People trembled. If you were lost, you talked to a policeman, he shows you the way. People cared for one another. But the civil war kind of broke the psyche and personality of Nigerians. Something went wrong. We started killing each other like rats.

Then I think just about that time, oil money just broke out. So when you start seeing people who have lost touch with feelings for somebody and a lot of money is coming in, he can kill to get that money. He can do anything. I think all these things started developing. And then the military took over very well and turned the Nigerian psyche to a military psyche. We started thinking like soldiers; every Nigerian, even a child. So we acted and behaved like them. Nigeria became a barrack. We were all like people living in large barracks.

If you have the opportunity to preach to every Nigerian on Christmas day, what would be the tone of you message?

My message would be just as Jesus for no good reason died for mankind. He allowed Himself to be nailed on the cross not because He was a thief or criminal, in other words, He sacrificed Himself, I would say to Nigerians, for once, let us see Nigeria as a project; a real project. Just as God saw the world as a project and He sent His son, let us see Nigeria as a project worth sacrificing for. When we see Nigeria as a project worth sacrificing for, the next thing would be what kind of sacrifice I can make. The sacrifices I can make may differ from the sacrifices you can make. But if we look at the different sacrifices we can make, from the bottom to the top, there are sacrifices everyone can make. If we can do that, believe me, this project Nigeria will take off very quickly. And we will all have a nation we can be proud of. The wonder about sacrifice is that what you sacrifice would come back to you. But when it comes back to you, it comes back to you even better.

Is there any unforgettable Christmas you ever celebrated?

I will give you three stories. One was my prison experience. The other was the family I overheard saying if they could have chicken for Christmas. And I bought them live chicken. I went home and I wept, not of sorrow but of joy. The third one was the little boy who came to church without shoes. We were having Christmas service. The church was packed full and people were happy. I think something happened…the mother came out or something and I noticed the boy had no shoes on. I mean, any child that is not wearing shoes on Christmas day, believe me, that child has no shoes. I mean it because Christmas day is the day anything you have must come out.

What it showed to me was the extent of the poverty of the little boy's family. There was no doubt about it. So I stopped my service. It didn't make sense. Looking at him without shoes, I forgot I was conducting a service. I took out some money from my pocket and handed it over to the woman to get shoes for him. Then there was an explosion of giving. People gave and gave. I think they got over half a million naira on that day. Afterwards, I was told they were able to start up a small business with the money. We literally stopped the service. I mean, what service are you holding with the boy's problem unattended to?

If you study the life of Jesus, you would notice that he would do things like that. He literally would stop the service, make certain comments and do certain things.

What is your Christmas gift for Mama (his wife)?
My Christmas gift to mama is that I would be at home on that day.

What is greatest Christmas gift you ever received?

I think the greatest gifts I have received are my three children. If you know my story, you would know where I am coming from. So for me, that is my greatest gift…that on Christmas day, I would wake up and see my wife, three children with me, we play, go to church, finish service, come home, eat together and just enjoy ourselves. So that for me is the greatest Christmas gift ever.

Are you optimistic that 2011 election would be a success?

I would say yes. But then, it would take more than INEC to achieve that feat. INEC is just a very little part of that process. We must all agree and say, I will register. It's going to take some efforts to do that. Then you make a selection of who you would vote for. Don't let people intimidate or buy you, because if they give you money, if they come into office, they are not obligated to give you anything because they had given you what is due you for the next four years.

So, register, select, twhen it is time to vote, go out and do so. And protect your vote. That is RSVP. It is very important. That is part of the sacrifice. You should be able to say to yourself, whatever gain I would have had now, let me sacrifice it. They would have given me this or that, but say to them, keep it, I don't want. I just want credible election. If I can do that today, and credible people come into power, tomorrow, because they are credible, my sacrifice would make sense, because suddenly, I discover that I can have power in my home.

What is your impression about our political class?

Like I have said, they are heartless. Just look at it now, elections are coming and suddenly they are reaching out, about 20 people to a bag of rice. They love to keep the people poor. They know that if they are poor, then they can always lord it over them. They know that the moment they are able to do something for themselves, they would ask questions. 'You who say you are representing us, what have you done?' So they don't want that. Because they don't want that type of challenge, they prefer the people stay poor. The agenda of the ruling class is, 'deprive the majority of the people everything.' In a civilised culture, (because we're not behaving as if we live in a civilised culture) a lot of the things we are seeing here shouldn't even be contemplated let alone allowed to happen. For example, look at our legislators; if it is true that some people are earning N290m, what is the good reason. Are we human beings? Are we, really that?

Do you foresee a revolution?
Look, I am afraid to say what I foresee. It's dangerous

Bloodshed?
I don't want to say it. We are praying against it. We believe that God would get into the hearts of some people because it is only God that changes people. God would enter the minds of some of our elected leaders (or selected as the case may be) for their minds to star changing, to think more of the people. As a leader it should not be about you. A good leader, first of all, must be God fearing. He must identify with the people. He must have a vision. He must be focussed. He must be courageous in the sense that he is not easily swayed by challenges, because challenges are part of life.

Once again, do you really foresee a free, fair poll in 2011 with the level of preparations today?

It is possible to have a free and fair poll. The reason is because…you can even feel it in the air. Nigerians are no longer the way they used to be. At least, many Nigerians are now actually clamouring for fair and credible elections. In the past, nobody cared. But you can see there are people saying we will protest and all that. For us in the church, we are also saying the election must be free and credible. This is apart from the fact that we are getting ready to help monitor the polls because we have the people all over the country. We are partnering with INEC on that because we have the people.

What is your advice to the electorate?
Nigerians must understand that if they allow someone to give them money for their votes, they have thrown away their future. How much money can anyone pay you for your conscience? In fact, Jesus Christ put it this way: 'What shall it profit a man if he gains he whole world?' In this case you are not gaining anything but a few thousand naira that you will spend in a moment and when it is gone what happens next?

Someone observed that since you became CAN president, your cross has become bigger. Is it to show that the task at hand is heavy?

(Prolonged laughter) No, it is not true (that I am now wearing a bigger cross). I have had this (Pulling at the cross on his neck) I can't remember for how many years. So it is not quite true.

What about the grey hairs that are far more now than before?

Well, I have not been able to have a hair cut for quite some time now. Probably, it is a possible reason. Who knows? Responsibility sometime squeezes you a little bit more. But my prayer is that if I can use this time to do some credible things, things that are tangible, that would affect people, I will be happy. I don't want to go through my presidency and people would just say, he was once a president (of CAN). I want someone to be able to say, this was what he was able to do during his tenure.

I believe God will use me and use my tenure to begin to hold elected officials accountable for their positions.