It was an indicator in the cockpit that said there was smoke in the cargo hold. We were flying from Sydney to London and were 10 hours into the second leg when the plane did a 180 degree turn. We did an emergency landing in Baku airport in Azerbaijan.
We were supposed to land in London at 6am on December 23rd. Now we would be landing at the same time 2 days later – on Christmas Day. As some of my readers will know I am a single mum and was travelling with my two children, so being stuck somewhere is fraught.
354 passengers stranded. There was confusion, disappointment, physical tiredness after already having travelled for 28 hours, and there was emotional overwhelm, facing a strange landing and facing the unknown. To compound matters, we couldn’t access our suitcases and so none of us had access to fresh clothes, toiletries or medication. While the airline did their best in a bizarre and unforeseen situation, the communications were sporadic and chaotic which heightened everyone’s feeling of utter vulnerability.
We stayed in the airport for 10 hours before being bussed to a hotel in the city. We all had to get visas as nobody was actually allowed into the country. What made the airlines task more difficult is that planes don’t usually fly there and there are no clear diplomatic channels with Azerbaijan. It’s not like you can just send another plane in – you have to establish flight paths and permissions and that takes government to government diplomacy before airline to airport agreements can take place.
As a single mum, I also had to keep two children fed and mentally well and calm when all I wanted to do was have a tantrum/break down and cry/drink a lot of wine or all of the above.
It turns out everyone back home in Sydney (and my family and friends in London) were following the story on the news.
I was about half successful in pretending everything was just a grand adventure. We got food. We slept (we were in a comfortable bed but all three of us were in it and my kids are very long and very elbow-y). I also woke every couple of hours to check my phone to see if there was a recovery plan. With nothing forthcoming, we went for a walk to explore Baku (which is a very interesting place), found ice cream and then slept a bit more. Then we found out we were to fly at 10.30pm so leaving the hotel at 6pm. Not long to go.
But then in the following hour we found out that we would be flying at 5am the following morning, with transfer to the airport at 1am. That’s when I cried.
I went to lie down, told the boys it was ok, the stress just needed to come out of my eyes while I processed the information. We made a cup of tea and found something on the TV in English (which was Call the Midwife – very English, very comforting). We prayed and thanked God for keeping us safe, and keeping us together.
As I lay there, I was moved to wonder what God wants me to know in this situation. Of course there is patience, and leaning on him in times of complete vulnerability. But I felt there was more to ponder.
As I mulled over what was turning out to be Christmas in Azerbaijan, the nativity popped into my brain. Mary specifically. She was far from home and heavily pregnant – completely vulnerable. The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem is about 90km and they surmise that up to 20km per day could be covered. Except Mary was heavily pregnant and so the journey could have taken 7-10 days. It was also an arduous journey, not the easy but dusty ride through desert we imagine because of the Christmas card silhouettes. It was up hill and down craggy valley, with risk of animal and bandit attacks.
So vulnerable. When they finally made it to Bethlehem, she must have thought their situation was resolved – only to find out that there was no accommodation.
And in that situation, when you want to just cry and tap out, you can’t. The only thing you can do is dig deeper. Dig deeper to keep going when you don’t think you even have the strength to carry on. Dig deeper because it’s not over and there’s no way out of the situation except through it.
Mary had already been travelling this journey for months. She was an unmarried pregnant woman and while we know she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit, not even Joseph believed her (in Matthew 1:19 he is going to see her through to the birth and then quietly divorce her).
Now, after all this, Mary had to dig deeper again like never before.
Of course her situation is resolved, Jesus our saviour was born. He was recognised as the messiah by the shepherds and the wise men. Her words about the child are validated.
But only after a time of intense vulnerability. And God is there. He is with her and Joseph in the long story as well as in the moment. That moment at the birth of our saviour, who was fully God and fully man, come to save the world, the culmination of God’s eternal plan for salvation.
As I write this I’m back at the airport in Baku. It is 3am Azerbaijan time and we get on a plane in 2 hrs. Then we fly for 5 hours, futz around at the airport in London for an hour and then drive for 2 hours to get to our destination. But we are moving. Digging deeper is not about having the strength to play the whole game. It’s about having the strength to just do the next thing. God is in the long game, but he’s with us as we do the next thing too.
2,000 years ago, God chose a woman, an ordinary human woman, to bear the child that would save the world. She carried him and birthed him and nurtured him. That is amazing, but she had to have the strength to keep going.
I am so encouraged by the humanity of the nativity, among the spiritual wonder of it. There are so many aspects of the events that God uses to give us comfort. For he is the God of all comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3-5). I feel such a love for God in this moment, and praise him for his salvation plans and his intimate presence in the details – eternal and personal.
Merry Christmas everyone. And may God keep you and bless you and comfort you.
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.”