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Imagining the unimaginable: Christmas beckons us to see in ever new ways how Christ became one of us.

As we look forward to celebrating the birth of Jesus, we continue the journey into hope that gives us our future. Reaching toward the Holy Mystery at the center of our lives, we listen for voices that will speak of infinite compassion--as the prophets did. We look for signs of the justice they called for, yearn for a peace beyond all the narrow boundaries of national self-interest. Once more we seek to imagine the unimaginable: that goodness, truth and mercy might pitch a tent among us, dwell in our midst, be the solace and savior of our world. We are preparing to open our hearts to "the hint half guessed, the gift half understood": the birth of eternity in time, a young girl's womb bearing the fruit of the ages.

Recently I discovered several telling images of the miracle. Among the exuberant works of Latin American colonial art on view this Advent at the Philadelphia Museum of Art--paintings, textiles, sculptures, ceramics, feather-work and all manner of gorgeous furniture--a special fascination attaches to an 18th-century painting from vice regal Peru of "The Christ Child Wearing the Imperial Inca Crown and Catholic Priestly Robes." Facing the viewer in the pose of Savior of the World, his right hand extended in blessing, his left securing the orb of the world, the earnest child with dark anxious eyes wears sandals bearing puma heads and an elaborate neo-Inca headpiece from which the scarlet tassel of royalty hangs over his forehead. A bishop's cape and gilded tunic worn over his white linen alb identify him also as priest: rex et sacerdos. The baroque pedestal on which he stands, as well as the vases with flowers to his left and right, indicate that the painting, the only one of its kind to have survived the Spanish suppression of Inca imagery in the late 18th century, represents a statue that was revered in a church somewhere in the southern Andes.

Soon after the Jesuits built their first church in the ancient Inca capital of Cuzco, they promoted in the neighboring villages lay confraternities of Indians dedicated to the name of Jesus. According to a report from Cuzco in 1610 that describes the almost monthlong celebration of the beatification of Ignatius of Loyola, various parishes marched in turn to the main square carrying symbols and chanting songs of their Inca forebears now adapted to honor Ignatius. One such procession was met by a lay confraternity bearing a statue of the Christ Child in imperial dress and wearing the Inca crown. It was the sculptural ancestor of the 18th-century painting that speaks so stirringly of Christian faith expressed in native idiom.

If a royal tradition honored the child of Bethlehem by associating him with the Inca King (and perhaps at the same time the Lord of the Day worshiped in Cuzco's Temple of the Sun), another, more populist tradition assimilated him to the style of newly baptized Indians. In the beguiling "Christ Child of Huanca" (circa 1600-10), from the Church of San Pedro in Lima, the boy savior is imagined in plainer but equally novel terms. The wide-eyed, almost life-sized figure, barefoot and with his thick black hair cut in the style of an Indian convert, wears a handsome red and gilded tunic. In his right hand he holds aloft a heart bearing the initials of Mary Queen of Heaven, in his left hand a halved avocado as a symbol, presumably, of nourishing welcome. The piece may be more folk art than refined sculpture. But it is an important corrective to the interpretation of Christ in royal and hierarchical terms that easily identify him with power and position rather than with the people in need for whom in fact he was born.

Whether imaging the boy savior as .Inca king or Indian convert, as crowned or commoner, this art tenderly reminds us of the searching heart's age-old impulse to imagine what is ultimately unimaginable. We have begun to reach for the depths of Advent hope only when we hold together, in mind and heart, two great truths. On the one hand, there is the infinite, unbounded, incomprehensible, transcendent glory and majesty of the,Holy One we falteringly call God. But there is also the utterly particular, vulnerable and tender, intimate embodiment of God in incarnate Word, human son and savior, child of Mary born of the Holy Spirit. The God of our daily faith is never at our disposal, is inexhaustibly greater than we can ever imagine and transcends the most solemn proclamations of church doctrine as well as the most inspired prayers of our saints. And yet the mystery is given to us, walks with us, touches, teaches and suffers for us in the of Jesus of Nazareth.

The becoming human of God in Christ only begins at Christmas. It is the beginning of a human life we celebrate Dec. 25, but a life, we must also remember, whose matchless holiness led first to the cross and only then to glory. We are accustomed at this time of year to Christian imagery deriving largely from the Renaissance and Baroque periods--accompanied, of course, by secular greetings retreating into vapid abstractions or trite sentimentality. Other art can remind us bracingly of the infinite fertility, the universality and depth of what we celebrate. As there are four Gospels, and not simply one pseudo-journalistic report on the life of Jesus, so there are countless ways to imagine how he became one of us--and how he is incomplete until we are all one with him. (A Dominican nun once had us second-graders portray the Nativity taking place in Japan. And she did that in the days immediately following Pearl Harbor.)

While the most tender of our liturgical celebrations, Christmas is also utterly realistic. It kneels not before a single child, but before all the children for whom this child was born. It kneels in the parish church we visit with our families, but also on every continent where loving mothers bend over newborn girls and boys of every color, tongue and culture. Whether in suffering or joy, at times of peace or war, among the rich or the poor, Christmas is the charter of the Christian imagination to see again and again, in ever new ways, and without end, how Christ was born in Bethlehem so that his brothers and sisters might be born of his same Holy Spirit until the end of time.

[Fr. Leo O'Donovan is president emeritus of Georgetown University,]
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Author:O'Donovan, Leo J.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2006
Previous Article:"Maundy Thursday.".
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