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|December 19, 2003||
Vol. 1, No. 171
Altering the face of Christ
Pat Morrison, NCR managing editor
Devotion to the infant Christ has always been a cherished tradition in the monasteries of Discalced Carmelite nuns. That's due in part to the order's foundress, Teresa of Avila. The great 16th-century Spanish mystic reminded her spiritual daughters (and all who read her works on prayer) that no matter how advanced one is in the spiritual life, we never "outgrow" the humanity of Christ.
A Carmelite friend of mine told me the story of what happened in her monastery when the Christmas Christ Child began his circuit some years ago.
This convent's statue of the infant is a wax replica of the one that is placed each Christmas Eve in the grotto below Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, Jesus' traditional birthplace. The life-like Infant Jesus is a big hit with the nuns. Being wax, it is rather fragile, and also an heirloom, having been given to the community at its founding some 50 years earlier.
One Epiphany, as Baby Jesus' "tour" was winding down, the prioress noticed with some alarm that he was apparently the recipient of a bit too much TLC. As the nuns took turns venerating the statue over the years, Jesus' features were being worn away by their enthusiastic devotion! The rosy pink lips were kind of smooshed and colorless, and a delicate eyebrow was gone. To make matters worse, some wannabe artists had decided to try their hand "fixing" the situation: A new eyebrow was painted on - but higher than the remaining one and darker in color. And Jesus' lips got some color too, but slightly off center. (As my friend put it wryly, "Think Bette Davis in 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane'!") And on close inspection, the tiny nose looked like it had been reshaped - possibly after Jesus took a header onto the floor.
Like the Skin Horse in The Velveteen Rabbit, little Jesus may have been on the way to being loved "real," but the prioress worried that any further "improvements" by well-meaning but artistically challenged devotees would damage the treasured statue beyond repair.
So the following Christmas the statue again made the rounds of the monastery. But this time there was a large note attached to his box: "PLEASE! Do NOT Alter the Face of Christ!"
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We both had a good laugh at the story, both because of the note (Convents, especially contemplative ones dedicated to silence, are big on notes!), but also because of the concept: that humans could have the power to change the face of the divine.
Every Christmas season as I unwrap my own family's figure of the Christ Child to place in the Nativity scene, I think of my friend and her anecdote and smile. But, with all due respect, I also think the prioress got it wrong, at least theologically speaking.
At that first Christmas in Bethlehem, God became human in the person of Jesus. In him, God now had a distinctive human face. But since the Incarnation -- specifically since the Resurrection -- God in Christ has embraced the whole human race. His face is no longer limited to one ethnic group, one culture, one moment in time.
As Christians, our challenge is not so much to "protect" the image of Jesus that first was made manifest in Palestine two millennia ago-although preserving the Christian tradition and the holy places associated with Christ's life on earth is important.
Rather, the invitation of the Incarnation is precisely to "alter the face of Christ" so that now we recognize God's image in every human being on the planet:
Alter our stereotype of what Christ looks like, so that we can find him
Alter, perhaps, our image of the too-familiar Christ so that we may discover him anew
This Christmas and into the new year, may we always recognize and welcome Christ Who Comes.
Pat Morrison is NCR managing editor. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.
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