When I was growing up, all the Nativity sets I saw had fair-haired figures. It didn’t start to bother me until I was about nine or ten, the age when I was exposed to the civil rights movement. Why, I wondered, did Jesus have golden hair if he was born in the Near East? I grew highly critical of European nativities, and then European religious paintings, particularly when they were clad in what was contemporary clothing for that time. How dare Michelangelo depict God as an old white man, I wondered?
But as I grew as a person and as a Christian, I understood that I was looking at things all wrong. I think what that helped me understand was a set of Chinese silk paintings I bought at a yard sale. They were religious in nature, and one depicted the Holy Family. There, with Chinese faces, dressed in traditional Chinese dress, were Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus, adorned with haloes and surrounded by tiny winged Chinese angels.
And then I remembered my small creche from Mexico, with its traditional Meso-American painting, animals and figures, and my carved creche from Africa, with its native figures and animals. Every culture looked at Jesus and the Holy Family as belonging to them. In a way, this is good. God is accessible. When you are in a homogenous culture, God is inclusive. But when you live in a modern, heterogenous culture, this can be dangerous.
The writer Anne Lamott wrote, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do,” and modern culture and faith traditions have certainly used God as a way to determine who is good and who is bad. Anyone not like you in terms of race, faith, income, ancestry, appearance, or other arbitrary factor is therefore not like God, and therefore open to neglect or mistreatment.
Since Biblical times people with disabilities have been seen as something “less.” When Jesus was presented with a man who was born blind, the apostles asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” John 9:2 The mentally ill were “demoniacs,” who lived among the tombs. Matthew 8:28
I love the author James McBride’s sharing of his mother’s description of God. McBride’s father was black, his mother an Orthodox Jew who converted to Christianity. God, she declared, is “the color of water.” God, I believe, is also sighted, blind, hearing, deaf, able-bodied and uses a wheelchair, developmentally disabled, places on the autism spectrum and is mentally gifted. God looks after each of us, and looks like each of us. God has no ethnicity, and is every ethnicity. If we truly believe we are made in God’s image, and God makes no mistakes, then God is a gloriously diverse God, with gloriously diverse discapacities, as the word translates from Spanish. And aren’t we blessed to have such a God on our side?
Dear God, We thank you that we are fiercely and wonderfully made in your image. Remind us that we are yours, that we are never alone, and that when we step or roll out in faith to do you work, we will be successful. We might be just the sowers of seeds, but we trust you that they will find fertile soil and bloom. Thank you for choosing us and using us. In the name of Christ, the Master Gardener, Amen.