I spent Christmastide of 1993-1994 in a rural village on Shikoku, Japan’s smallest main island. I was 13, impossibly skinny—my brain a language-sponge my Japanese classmates teased me about for being more Japanese than Japanese.

There is almost nothing I forget about that winter vacation: the udon noodles, the persimmons from the trees in the yard, the home-made plum pickles in the cellar, the eleven-faced Buddha we visited on New Year’s Day after climbing 1,368 steps at Konpira-san, grandfather’s war-stories told from the Japanese side, the Shinto amulet on the kitchen wall honoring the war dead at Yasukuni, the smell of the tatami, the freshness of the frosty mornings, the cramped hands from heavy homework, the incense grandmother offered every morning in front of the pictures of her ancestors, my weak but valiant attempts to read medieval Japanese literature, the bitter oranges and herring roe and black soybeans and raw sea bream, and having forgotten my Bible at home in Osaka—several hours of a ferry ride away across the inland sea.

This distressed me as a young man more than it probably would have troubled most of my peers. But I was a devout kid, never skipping a daily chapter, as often as not falling asleep with my bedside light on and my Bible open by me. I wonder what to make of all those wasted years of electricity burned while I was sleeping and the sacred pages sat silent next to me.

Pennsylvania German Anglo-Italian Episcopalian adolescent that I was, I was what Paul called “cast on a certain island,” and it was unlikely that I would get back to my RSV before around January 10. I suppose I felt guilty for not having prioritized in my packing, lazy for not keeping up with my reading, and a little anxious: I checked my two bags over and over until I was sure I had really forgotten it.

There is no riddling my discovery after breakfast following the first night on Shikoku in the family library: a New Testament in parallel English and Japanese columns, published by the British and Foreign Bible Society in the middle 1930s. There was a Bible in the house after all, but how it came to be there is an entire mystery. My host-grandfather’s family had served in the Imperial Japanese Army, including in Manchukuo, and showed no interest in Christianity; his son once called me without malice an idiot for believing in the resurrection. My host-grandmother’s family were high school teachers in the Japanese educational system in Pyongyang, and even in 1994 she held fond memories of Korean Christmas carols and roasted chestnuts on the street corner until it all fell apart in 1945. It is long forgotten now that Pyongyang was the Jerusalem of the East until it wasn’t, but the vividness of public Christianity there was something I glimpsed with gratitude in Hatsuko’s eyes. They have both now gone to graves I have yet to be able to visit, though I have been careful to send money lo these twenty years for incense to rise in their memory.

The adult historian-missiologist within me looks at this and sees a miracle of the penetration of the scriptures throughout the world. I have given some of my own energy in life to what was once called the propagation of religious knowledge, and I can thank my forebears in that work for having gotten a Bible into that household even if nobody read it for six decades. Books do end up in places.

The boy within me took and read, and found a Christmas within a Christmas:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.