Where the Foreign Meets the Familiar

By Jan Richardson

Glory © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Christmas Eve: Luke 2.1-20

Last weekend I finally put up my nativity set. I usually do this much earlier in the season, but this year found me laggardly. Perhaps it was the intense pace, or maybe it had to do with getting sick, or possibly it owed to the fact that it’s been really warm here in Florida, which, even for someone who absorbs herself in the Advent season, poses something of a challenge to getting in a holiday mood. Whatever the reason for my tardiness, the nativity players have finally taken their places.

It’s a sweet set, very petite, with figures about 3” high. Perfectly scaled to my studio apartment. I have a much larger set, a gorgeous one that was hand-built by a potter who used to have a studio near where I grew up, but when I toppled a couple of the pieces several Christmases ago as I was rounding my one-and-only table to get to my one-and-only closet, I decided to put it away until I had a proportionately larger place to house it. My parents, who had given me the larger set as a Christmas present, gave me the petite one as well, after I picked it out at a shop where they live that specializes in fair trade items. Made by artisans in Peru, the set depicts a Peruvian nativity. The shepherds wear knitted Peruvian hats (the kind that fit close to the head, with flaps that cover the ears; I have one that my friend Eric gave me when he lived in Peru; sadly, it won’t get much use as long as I live in the tropics). I’m not entirely sure what two of the wise men are carrying, but the third is definitely bringing a chicken to the Holy Family. Mary kneels before Jesus (who wears a little hat just like the shepherds’) as a somewhat worried Joseph hovers nearby, leaning on a staff. And of course a Peruvian ox and donkey look on, exuding a sense of calm.

I love seeing the Christmas story—and the broader biblical narrative—depicted in various cultures, with the characters appearing in a way that challenges my vision and unsettles my stereotypes. That’s part of what draws me to the work of artists such as He Qi, for instance, and to Manuel Garcia Moia, a Nicaraguan artist whose painting Gift of the Magi depicts a Nicaraguan scene in which the wise men offer an armadillo, a rabbit, and—I think it’s an iguana-? Particularly for those of us acculturated to envision the Christmas story in which the characters have blond hair and blue eyes, viewing the nativity narrative in a different context helps us to reimagine the story and to consider how the incarnation continues to occur amid the daily life of every culture in every place.

At the same time, the very familiarity of the Christmas story conjures memories that go deep. Each year, as I spiral back around the narrative that I have heard for more than four decades, remembrances of other Christmases come to the surface. This year some of the landscape of memory will take concrete form once again as I enact the rituals and habits that have shaped earlier holidays: the Christmas Eve service at the white painted church in the pines of my hometown, where the children will dress up for their own manger scene, after which Santa Claus will arrive (don’t ask; that’s how they’ve always done it); Christmas morning brunch (featuring homemade biscuits and sticky buns) with family friends; Christmas dinner at the home of my brother and sister-in-law, who live in the house that he and my sister and I grew up in. When I arrive at my parents’ in a few hours, they will have the nativity from my childhood set up, with a few extra pieces that my whimsical mother has added in more recent years: a giraffe and a moose are now among the creatures who attend the newborn Jesus.

I’m enacting some of my less pleasant holiday habits as well; I haven’t quite finished my shopping (I’m almost done, really), and I’m late as usual getting out of town. But even in an overfull day in an overfull season, there have been small wonders of the sort that spring up in the places where the familiar meets the unexpected.

Christmas offers a microcosm of what we’re called to in the Christian life. These days invite us to attend to the stories that help us know where we came from and what we’re about. As we listen, we are challenged to enter the deep familiarity of these stories that have been given to us. At the same time, these oh-so-familiar tales urge us to see how the Christmas narrative continues to unfold in our world, and to recognize when holy ones enter into our midst. They may come bearing good news of great joy, or in desperate need of hospitality, or offering a gift that only they could bring.

In this season, in any season, will we recognize them? Will we have the eyes to see how the story of the incarnation, the tale of Emmanuel, God-with-us, continues to play out in places both foreign and familiar?

As we draw near to Christmas Day, may we find something to comfort us and something to challenge us as we enter the story once again. May we, with the angels, have cause to sing of glory and peace. Blessings!

[For last year’s reflection on this passage, visit Door 24: The Secret Room.]

[To use the “Glory” image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Advent Door possible. Thank you!]

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4 Responses to “Where the Foreign Meets the Familiar”

  1. Cathy Says:

    Jan, Thank you for the many doors you’ve offered of Emmanuel in this season. Many the blessings return to you as you share in the joy of the season!

  2. Jan Richardson Says:

    Thank you, Cathy! Christmas blessings to you!

  3. phyllis Says:

    I know I’m catching up here, but I couldn’t pass on this one! I find comfort every year in setting out at least three (that’s all the room I have) of the five different nativity sets we have collected: three from Africa in ebony, thorn wood and soap stone; one from friends in Ecuador (brightly colored sculpted dough figures that fills the whole mantle) and one very small set with only Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus from Carl’s childhood. They each express a certain cultural aspect to Jesus and I always receive something special when I set them up and see them every day throughout the Season. Mostly at the end of each day, they remind me to look for Him in my daily comings and goings and to not take this Special Gift for granted. Blessings and thanks for the Foreign and Familiar. It was meaningful to me!

  4. Jan Richardson Says:

    Oh, thanks so much, Phyllis, for your description of these nativity sets; what great images. Great to see you this morning, and thanks so much for your companionship on the path to Christmas! Deep blessings to you and yours.

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