Standing in Nazareth's Basilica of the Annunciation, I gazed up at mosaics from all over the world. These works depicted the Virgin Mary with Jesus, and in each case Jesus bore the ethnic identity of the predominate group in the gifting country. That is, the art from Ecuador showed Jesus as Ecuadorian; the work from Japan, as Japanese; and the one from Thailand, as Thai. The baby Jesus from Slovenia even had red hair.
The mosaics’ creators made these localized images to remind viewers that Jesus is “one of us”—which he is. Yet so many artists have depicted Jesus as white for so long with such far-reaching influence that many think of Jesus as white, even if unconsciously.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with localized depictions of our Savior. Yet they can blind us to the reality that Jesus was born of a Jewish mother in the Middle East. And in a world of Roman power, he was so deeply Galilean that in the same city where I saw the diverse mosaics, two millennia earlier, Jesus slipped away into the crowd without detection (Luke 4:30).
The olive-skinned Jesus knew how it felt to live as an outsider, to be “other.” He spent his first months in Egypt as a refugee who fled infanticide. When he relocated to Nazareth, perhaps he felt the sting of being “one of the new kids in town.” Certainly he later experienced being homeless. And if that weren’t enough, consider how he probably spoke. At Jesus’ trial in Jerusalem, Peter, another Galilean, heard someone say, “Your accent gives you away” (see Mark 14:66–70). The one who is “one of us” in his humanity was also wholly “other.”
Years ago, members of my church took a spring-break trip to a border town, Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Every night after walking dusty roads with members of our sister church, our team crossed back into the United States, where we had a discount on lodging. But something about the experience made us feel unsettled, so we took a friend, Octavio, with us the following year, and we asked him to help us build a better relationship.
At the end of our week together, Octavio did have some suggestions, and our choice to follow them led to a stronger partnership that benefited us all for decades. First, incarnating Christ means “presence,” he said. “So stay on the Mexico side. Otherwise, it feels like you’re ‘fleeing to safety’ every night.” Second, instead of scheduling the trip for spring break—the most convenient time for us—he advised going over Christmas.
True, that was a terrible time for Americans, but in Mexico, nobody would have to take time off work to cook beans or translate for us, and people would have extra relatives in town, meaning extra tamales, and extra nieces and nephews happy to attend Christmas programs. Next, he said, quit calling the work a “mission” trip; call it a “ministry trip.” And finally, invite members of the Mexico church to help us in Dallas so we would recognize that we were equal beneficiaries of each other’s help.
Jesus prayed that we all might be one (John 17:21). And a move toward unity across barriers—whether ethnic, geographical, social, political, physical, or spiritual—means we must acknowledge that we all have forms of blindness. So we must ask questions and listen; serve, instead of expecting others to accommodate us; and learn from each others’ perspectives.
The kingdom of heaven is upside down. Our king was a Middle Eastern, persecuted, homeless, refugee outsider who tells us that to serve the naked and the poor is to serve him.
We all have prejudice in our hearts; often we have biases we don’t even know about. But—good news—our Lord loves and changes bigots. Recall that when a man named Nathanael from Cana (John 21:2) insulted Jesus’ adopted hometown with, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (1:46, NASB), Jesus invited him to join the Twelve. Our Lord in his grace even gave this man a glimpse of his own identity as the Christ: “You will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (v. 51, NASB).
When we humble ourselves and celebrate unity in diversity, we ourselves benefit; and we can give others a glimpse of the reality that something truly fantastic came from Nazareth.
[An earlier version of this post originally appeared in DTS Magazine.