We ask ourselves this question each Advent season, mainly because it’s the opening query of the night wind to the little lamb in the holiday classic ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’ Bing Crosby then sings about what is seen: a star dancing in the night above the manger housing the child who will bring us goodness and light.
Pause and take a vivid mental picture of what this child looks like in your mind.
This scene from Jesus’ story is ubiquitous this time of year—not only in nativity pageants and plays throughout our schools and churches, but in the crèches decorating sanctuaries, homes, lawns, and city centers. The image of the Christ Child with Mary and Joseph is among the most influential in history, and it’s especially powerful in inspiring and forming in the spiritual imagination of children and adults alike. Whereas few can wholly identify with the agony of Christ’s crucifixion, literally everyone has been a baby dependent on the love and care of his or her family. The Holy Family not only underlines that family itself is holy, it is also the earliest and easiest point of identification and intimacy with Jesus. This magnetic image of God in the Christ Child matters tremendously because the sacred images we circulate influence both our spiritual imaginations and expectations. How we remember the First Coming shapes how we anticipate the Second Coming; how we imagine Immanuel in the manger back then outlines how we look for and see God with us in our midst right now.
My thoughts are inspired by a post I saw circulating on Facebook last week. The post contained ten different artistic representations of Mary and the Christ Child (and sometimes Joseph), each beautiful image coming from a different culture around the world. It immediately became apparent that what distinguished this group of images from the vast majority of other nativity scenes I commonly see was that Jesus only appears as a person of European decent in one image. Put differently, the holy diversity on display before me in that moment made me especially cognizant of how much I, like the Western culture that shaped me, had come to associate the nativity with whiteness. This is problematic, particularly given that the association of whiteness and Jesus is America’s original sin: a perverted form of Euro-Christianity that tried to legitimize slavery and white supremacy for centuries.
Because I firmly believe that Christians—white Christians, especially—have the unique responsibility to identify and undo practices where whiteness is privileged in our faith and lives, I posed the question to myself: Am I unconsciously perpetuating or allowing this association to continue each year, or am I doing something within my power to challenge this association of Jesus and whiteness?
As a chaplain and religion teacher, it was within my immediate power to see how high school students in my Bible class would react to the diverse imagery of the Christ Child. I decided to experiment: I began class with a visio divina by having student visually meditate on the images. In the silence, it was as though each artist was directly asking the viewers, “Do you see what I see?”
Seeing through others’ eyes (and art), when I opened the class up to a round-table discussion my students began a conversation about how the diversity of images lets you see how each culture makes a connection between their lives and Jesus’ life, and by placing these images and connections side by side you can see just how global and universal the story of Christmas really is. One painting of a Hispanic Holy Family traveling somberly by night brought up the idea of retelling the story of the flight to Egypt as if it were taking place today. Students reimagined Jesus in the place a child refugee attempting to cross international borders to find safety in America or Europe. It was debated whether or not the wise men were criminals for disobeying the commands of the governing authority. One person linked this conversation to the nativity scene he had seen on the news where the Christ Child, Mary, and Joseph were ‘detained’ in a cage (he was referring to the display at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis).
Within one class period, many students’ spiritual imaginations had undergone what I consider a significant growth spurt. All hands went up when, after the discussion, I asked whose perspective of Jesus and the Christmas story had been notably changed. Had we only seen images of a white Jesus, I’m quite certain such theologically and ethically rich conversation and growth would not have taken place.
This Advent and Christmas season, I pray that some of your unconscious assumptions or implicit bias will somehow be beautifully exposed and gracefully challenged like mine were, and that we will all open our eyes to intentionally see and proclaim the full diversity of Christ Jesus.
About the Author
The Rev. Timothy Seamans is the Assistant Chaplain at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia – a boarding school for grades nine through twelve. Timothy is married to Marissa Seamans and is the proud father of his newborn daughter, Nico. He also serves as a member of the Presiding Bishop’s Executive Council Committee on Anti-Racism.