Saturday, 18 December 2010


"The Word (of God) became flesh and dwelt amongst us"
With those few words John's Gospel expresses the wonder of Christmas.

Artists throughout the ages and of every race and culture have tried to express what the birth of Jesus meant for them and their people. They realized that He was not simply a Jewish baby born at Bethlehem some two thousand years ago. Certainly He was all that. But Jesus was, is, one of us -whatever our culture and wherever we live. He lived and died for each and every one of us. Whatever our backgrounds we are no longer outsiders to Jesus, or He to us. While respecting our differences He has broken down the barriers which separate us.

With this in mind I used Google Search to discover how artists of different cultures had depicted the Nativity and Epiphany in paintings and crib figures. What I found was a real eye-opener! What a rich cultural variety!

When I typed in "Eskimo Nativity" I found crib figures based on that culture. Jesus was born in an igloo. The Holy Family were all clothed in typical animal skins. To suggest that the whole creation welcomed His birth there's a polar bear and seal come to adore Him. Another search revealed a statue of an exquisite Eskimo Madonna and Child.

Then I discovered a Peruvian Epiphany. To my delight the Holy Family was dressed in the clothing of that culture. Instead of the Magi's camels there were llamas.

Excitedly I looked for pictures from all round the world. The pattern was the same. From the Far East to the Americas, from Africa to India, and from Europe to the Caribbean each country presented the birth of the
Saviour of the world in the imagery of its own culture.

And what a rich creative variety of pictures and statues I found! In so many of them people have woven elements from their own particular cultures to express their belief that the Son of God became a human baby and dwelt amongst us. The variety in the representations of the Nativity proclaims our shared conviction that the babe born at Bethlehem comes to us where we are. Though He was born long ago in a distant land He is far from being a stranger. He is one of us. He identifies with us, and we with Him.

I say, "We" rather than, "You" because my European culture has its own particular way of expressing its faith in pictures, statues and crib figures -just as yours does.

I don't know of any contemporary European artist portraying the Holy Family in modern dress, with the Magi arriving in a luxury car. But I did find a Haitian Nativity with Mary wearing a blouse, skirt and knotted head scarf, while Joseph wore a T shirt and jeans. Deliberately very contemporary. Shocking? If so, why?

That reminds me of the time when I was working at a conference centre. Deciding to give a hand with the Christmas decorations I made several mobiles -not portable telephones, but figures hanging on threads from bits of wire. One of my mobiles had angels playing musical instruments. Not the traditional harps and trumpets, but guitars and bongo drums. I was accused of being irreverent. Why?

John's Gospel tells us that, "The Word (of God) became flesh and dwelt amongst us," and that "He came to His own people." But who were THEY? Most obviously Jews living in the land of Israel some 2000 years ago. So the appearance and clothing of Jesus would have been typical of that time, place and culture and race. That's what it meant for Him to be a historical person, who blended with His background.

But the faith and imagination of artists has leaped beyond the historical. Rightly they realized that in becoming man Jesus identified with the whole human race, which He had joined and which He had come to save. That includes peoples of different times, races and cultures. There's not a single person on the face of the earth, or even in the womb, without his or her particular race and culture.

Though Jesus has broken down the barriers which separate us, the differences remain and enrich the life of the Christian community of the Church. Paul reassures us,
"There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for you are all one in Christ,"
(Galatians 3. 27). And again in Ephesians 2. 19,
"So then, you are no longer strangers or aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God."

As I ponder the different ways each culture depicts the birth of our saviour I'm powerfully reminded of our conviction that the Son of God shared our human life so that we could share His divine life. He comes to each of us where we are, in our own personal culture and background. That's where He approaches us; that's where we meet Him; that's where we draw close to Him. He builds on our cultural and racial heritage, bringing to perfection all that is good in them.

My discovery of such a variety of images of ethnic Nativities, including my own, has taught me that not only is Jesus an individual Jew, born in the Middle East a long time ago; He is also Everyman for Everybody. Whatever our race or culture He is one of us, and we, who come from diverse backgrounds, are all members of His single family. Our particular cultural heritage gives a special quality to the way each one of us meets God and expresses our love for Him. And He comes to us in our racial and cultural individuality.

I welcome not only you brothers and sisters of my own background, but also those of you who are very different from me. In you God's image is expressed in so many different, wonderful and beautiful ways. In you I meet God dwelling within you. You offer your culture not only to Him, but also to me. That enriches my understanding of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us.
A suggestion. Try using Google Image Search to discover your own and other people's cultural expression of the Birth of Our Saviour. I've only hinted at the treasures waiting to be discovered!
Isidore O.P.
In a fortnight's time Peter will reflect on a Nativity Tableau.
In the meantime we both wish all our readers
the special Christmas joy, peace and happiness,
which only the Babe Born at Bethlehem can give.

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