by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
Christmas is a time for storytelling. Here is one story which has a significant application for us today, two thousand years and half a world away from that astounding event in human history.
I remember vividly one Christmas Eve during my years in Peru. A brother Franciscan who had only recently joined our parish team decided to use his remarkable artistic talent to paint a large backdrop for the sanctuary in the church. It was the Bethlehem scene, and he depicted the shepherds approaching the stable as poor Peruvian indigenous folk.
Early on Christmas Eve, I was in the church celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation. At one point a well-dressed gentleman approached and informed me that he was not there for confession but to object strenuously to the artwork behind the altar. He insisted that depicting the shepherds as Peruvian “cholos” (the demeaning term for the Indian population of that country) was an insult to him and his social class.
I told the man that he had it exactly right—that the first witnesses to Christ’s birth were in effect a challenge to all of us who are people of privilege. I insisted that my brother Franciscan had gotten it correctly in translating the poor 1st century Hebrew shepherds into 20th century oppressed members of every society, Peru’s included.
Clearly the man was not at all satisfied with my explanation and left me with the same attitude with which he had approached—insulted by this modern and accurate rendition of the Gospel story.
Unfortunately, the postscript to this story is disappointing. When I returned to our friary that evening, I related the experience to my brother, the newly arrived artist. I told him that such reaction to his painting was for him a first and vivid example of what we were facing in trying to proclaim “the full Gospel” at that time and place. I said that his artistic insight was in line with the Latin American Church’s call for a preferential option for the poor in every aspect of Catholic life. However, the lesson was lost on this good man. During his time with us he never understood and much less put into practice the Gospel social analysis of what it means to preach this challenging Gospel message. He only lasted a short time with us.
The story is self-explanatory, I believe, as we experience once again the beautiful event of “Emmanuel,” the Good News of God to the poor and the poor in spirit that broke into human history.
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.