Jesus is Thai in this Nativity scene by Thai Christian artist Sawai Chinawong. It is a pressing spiritual matter to install core religious icons and narratives in one’s own cultural matrix. If we are born in a culture that is overwhelmingly Christian that is done for us without our having to exert ourselves very much.
For Sawai easy access was not the case. Thai culture is predominantly Theravada Buddhist. Sawai had to imagine the Christmas story for himself, without much help. His painting is a bridge between the Christian Gospel and Thai culture. He chose the most direct route, using traditional temple fresco painting style. Anyone steeped in Thai classical culture, at a glance, will perceive that this is a Thai religious picture and it surely illustrates a religious narrative. When the story content makes it clear this is about the birth of Jesus, there is no need to explain that the artist is asserting that Jesus Christ is relevant to Thai people. The evangelical message is implicit in the image.
How religious images and stories function spiritually and formatively is a more complex matter. The Christmas Story of the Holy Family, the shepherds and the wise men is more than a seasonal adornment. For Christians it is more than “our story”. For each of us it is also “my story” because it has helped make me who I am. It has done that by giving us metaphors to nourish and fortify us. Recently, at this stage of my senior years, I tend to clutch at the Christmas Story as a witness that God has not and will not abandon us. During my younger years the Nativity picture meant something else. The Christmas Story gives us important sustenance at whatever stage or circumstance in life we access it.
A message that many young adolescents get from the Christmas Story is encouragement that things are not necessarily what they seem to be. The Christ-child in the cattle feeder had an identity the world barely perceived that silent, holy night, and kids grasp the insight that “I am not the mess people think I am, either.”
BONUS NOTE: click here on The Christmas Story for more about how children assimilate the Biblical Christmas narrative and images.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.