the nativity is a foreign thing

Posted: December 24, 2015 in Uncategorized

G and I are currently watching our way through the “Dr. Who” series on Netflix.  Last night, we watched as the Doctor and his companion landed in Pompeii, just in time for the volcano.  We watched his companion wrestle with the agony of not changing history, and we watched the Doctor face the awful understanding that he must be the one to cause those 20,000 deaths, in order to save the entire planet from being annihilated by extraterrestrials with evil intent.

It’s a fantasy version of a real series of events, but here’s what I love about fiction:  it can bring reality to light in us sometimes in a way that simply reading the dry facts does not.  This episode did that for me.

I learned about Pompeii as perhaps you did – in grade school, from a social studies/history textbook.  It was just another set of facts to read and memorize.  Just another collection of things I’d need to remember to pass the test.  The textbook may or may not have been well-written – I was too young to make that judgment.  But the sad fact is that for many of us, learning history in a classroom from a textbook is a way to take all the life and reality out of history.  While a really skilled and passionate history teacher can bring these things alive for us, I’ve only ever experienced a handful of such teachers in my life, and I’m not sure ANY teacher can make it real for grade schoolers (or that this would even be a wise thing to do – that’s a lot of horror for a child to digest, what with so much of history being stories of conflict and conquest.)

I didn’t realize how theoretical and dead was my understanding of Pompeii until I watched this episode last night, and the specter of 20,000 lives ended in a day just about crushed me.  I had never thought about how sad Pompeii was in any way that could touch my own heart.  I had never taken the time to imagine the horror of realizing the danger too late and being unable to escape.  I watched, I wept, and my stomach hurt.  Endless questions ran through my mind for God.  I wondered about those who lived in the surrounding areas, and how they processed it all in the days and years that followed that catastrophe.

And then there’s the matter of trying to understand other cultures.  Being a willing and even aggressive learner, I believed my reading, watching films, and listening to lectures had given me some insight into the lives of those in other lands, when I was younger.  It wasn’t until our foreign exchange student came to live with us for a school year that I began to grasp how completely my life in a small, rural town had shaped my views.  Lino and I sat at my kitchen table for hours, talking over every aspect of life, and I was surprised at how hard that was sometimes – how the differences between life in the USA and in Switzerland were so different.  After all, they are 2 western cultures – shouldn’t they be highly comparable?  They were in some ways, but in other ways not at all.  Trying to compare our school system to theirs, for instance, ended up being impossible.  We just couldn’t translate the one to the other.

After Lino went home, his parents paid for me to come visit them, as a “small token of their appreciation,” and my understanding was opened even more to how small my perspective had been.  One of my favorite stories from that trip is one I call, “Dinner with the Italians.”  I won’t tell it here (it’s an “in person” kind of story), but in the space of one meal I came to realize how easy it is to offend others, even when trying with all one’s might not to do so, and how hard it can be to convey good intentions across cultural lines.  Again – Italians!  Another western culture!  This shouldn’t even be hard, right?

I’ve had other experiences that have shown me how “foreign” life in other cultures is to a girl from Mercer County, Illinois.

There was my early time on the internet, when I was a chat junkie, and spent hours conversing with “friends” from India and Jordan, who helped me see American culture and Christianity from an outside perspective.

There was the year and a half I worked at a domestic violence shelter, and later another 9 months of working at a homeless shelter.  The shelters were, I’m sorry to say, where I had the most exposure to the lives of black or brown women and children (I had never known a person of color on any basis beyond knowing names before working in the shelters) and it was exposure of a pretty intimate sort, since I was in charge of helping them with their day-to-day lives.  These experiences showed me how quick I was to judge what I didn’t understand, what didn’t have any moral value at all, but was just difference.

There was my time living at JPUSA, with friends inside the walls from many places and backgrounds, which happens to be located in the most culturally diverse neighborhood in Chicago, where many languages other than English were the norm to hear while walking down the street.  Just the simple challenge of walking into a salon specializing in black hair to ask to get my bangs cut was a “foreign” culture experience for me.

There have been my experiences at G’s synagogue, which (despite how warm, welcoming and generally wonderful the congregation there is) have been some of the most “foreign” experiences I’ve had, as others around me chant easily in Hebrew, and know when to bow during services that leave me fumbling to find my place, and don’t struggle to remember that the books read backward from the ones I’ve grown up reading.

This morning I am looking through the lens of those many eye- and mind-opening experiences at the story of baby Jesus in the manger.  It’s easy to feel like I know the story well, having grown up hearing it every Christmas.  It’s tempting to suppose I understand those people, those events.  But the experiences I’ve mentioned above tell me that I really don’t understand it much at all.

That was a culture vastly different from ours – another time, and a place clear across the planet.  A different language.  A different mindset.  A different history.  A different sense of right and wrong, and of danger.  Different priorities.  Different rules and expectations.  In my life, I have many times imagined myself there at the manger, but today I have some idea of how foreign that place would be to me – how much I wouldn’t understand.  It wouldn’t be like going out to the pasture behind the farmhouse I in which I was raised, to look into a little shed at some white folks with a baby, speaking unaccented midwestern English and feeling the way I feel.  I can read it, I can study the culture, I can meditate on it all, but in the end, it is more different than I can mostly grasp, I think.

Pondering the story this morning, I realize it has never been “real” to me in the way that the Pompeii story was to me last night as I wept through the end of Dr. Who.  My son Caleb played the baby Jesus in a Christmas play at a friend’s church when he was just a few weeks old – I remember how tenderly I laid him in the manger at the front of the church, and how watchful I was from my pew as the action took place around him.  This was a beautiful moment in my life, yet still it did not take me to Bethlehem or pull me back two centuries in time – I am no Doctor.  The nativity story, for me, is a cartoon played out in my head, and I’ve only rarely had insight into it in a punch-me-in-the-gut kind of way.  I have owned it as part of my religious heritage, but I have generally failed to let it be authentic.  I am not sure I am even able to grasp it on a real level, to be honest.

And still, the birth of the Christ child is at the very center of my story.  It stands there, somehow concurrent with His death as a heretic on a cross some 33 years later.  His entry to this earth was so humble.  His exit was so dramatic.  And scripture tells us His return will be seen by everyone on earth, and that “every knee will bow and every tongue confess” that He is Lord.  I wonder if that moment of His return will be foreign to us, when every eye beholds Him, or if that will be when we begin to really see, not in the “through the glass dimly” way to which we are currently limited, but with absolute clarity and complete freedom.

This morning, I’m only clear that I don’t fully see, that I don’t really understand, that the cartoon nativity in my head is not the real, whole story.

This morning, I’m grateful for His arrival.  For His story.  For His sacrifice.

This morning, I’m grateful that I am His, and He is mine.  I ache to see more, but I am glad to patiently wait, as He calls many others out of darkness.

This morning, it’s as real for me as I’m able to let it be.

This morning, that’s enough.





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