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Looking for the Christ Child — A daydream
Mary Raber, of St. Louis, Mo., served with MCC in Italy from 1981 to 1984 and in Ukraine from 1993 to 1996. She is now an International Service Worker with Mennonite Mission Network and teaches church history and other subjects at Odessa Theological Seminary. In this reflection, published in 2004, she ponders where Christ would be found in Odessa.
Years ago, I spent my first MCC term teaching English to immigrants from around the world in a shabby working-class seaside resort south of Rome called Lido di Ostia. During the Christmas season in Rome it was the custom to visit the nativity scenes in the big churches and on the public squares. We used to make the rounds on Christmas afternoon.
While the churches concentrated on the gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth, the nativity scenes on the squares and in the shop windows were much more complex. Not content with the relatively few characters mentioned in the Bible, the Italians added dozens of others: innkeepers, peddlers, bakers, shepherds and musicians. Some of them depicted entire miniature cities with houses and streets full of tiny people. If you peered through their little lighted windows or deep into their courtyards you could see them sawing lumber, mixing dough, fighting, selling flowers or accompanying a ring of dancers on bagpipes.
Predictably, I suppose, with so much going on, the original cast of the story — the Holy Family — was rather hard to find. They were there, all right, but they were on the edge of the activity, down a back street somewhere, behind a door, through a crumbling, dimly lit arch. But always, deep inside, if you kept looking, you could find the carved figures of Mary, Joseph and the Baby, full of movement and drama, surrounded by farm animals and framed with moss and rocks.
These days I live in Odessa, a Black Sea port city in Ukraine, in a small house inside a walled courtyard. It’s a typical arrangement here, where many of the low buildings are entered through a courtyard approached through a passage opening on the street. Passing by a row of them in a tram is like flipping through a photograph album. The end of each passage offers a glimpse of a living framed picture, perhaps of a boy on a bike, a curtained window, a chestnut tree or a line of flapping sheets.
During my first winter in Odessa these courtyard dioramas and the poorly-lit cobblestone streets haunted me with a sensation of déjà vu. On a dark winter afternoon they were full of activity: young sailors throwing snowballs; businesspeople buying newspapers; old women peddling trays of cake; buses idling beside lighted bread kiosks; stray dogs shivering; girls running.
Where had I seen these people, these dark narrow streets and dimly lit courtyard passages before? Gradually it dawned on me what they were like — an elaborate Italian nativity scene. It was all there — the houses, the vendors, the passersby, the figures in the lighted windows. And there I was, too, part of the composition, a miniature figure in a nativity scene.
Was I looking for the Christ Child? No, most likely I was looking for my own house because during those first weeks in Odessa when I was learning my way around, I tended to chug right past it. Like the other tiny figures I was intent on my own affairs, lost and busy, trying not to fall and break my arm on the icy sidewalk.
But what if I knew that the Baby Jesus was close by? What if one of the plaster shepherds left his distant papier-mâché hillside and grew larger and larger as he came running into Odessa to tell us all what the cardboard angel had sung? Wouldn’t I run after him to see? Wouldn’t the other figures drop what they were doing if they knew? Where should I look for the Christ Child? If Italian nativity scenes are any guide, He must be at the edge of the busy picture, hidden away under a low roof, deep inside a darkened house. If I peer down some narrow street, will He be there? Down that courtyard passage, perhaps? Maybe if I slipped though that crumbling archway and peeked through the line of light around the edge of those red curtains in that window, He would be there, lying in a manger. Mary and Joseph would be beside Him, all three more lovely and vivid than any Italian carving.
What if it were so? I would grope in the dark until I found a narrow door, and I would sidle in, my glasses fogging in the sudden warmth. What would I bring for a gift? The other figures have brought whatever is glued in their hands: a hammer, a flower, a twist of pastry, so I will do the same. I will lay down my purse and the cellophane package of buckwheat I am carrying.
Am I really welcome here? I move back and find a place to stand against the cracked wall, suddenly shy. What if another nativity figure steps over and whispers officiously that this is a family occasion, and would I please leave? But no one does. Slowly I relax. No one notices me — they’re all taken up with the Baby — and yet I am known here. I am at home. I have no idea how long I’ve been standing here, quiet and glad, when a sound like stirring air makes me glance up, and instead of the plaster ceiling for one terrifying second I glimpse billions of fiery, wondering eyes …
It’s only a daydream, of course, an odd fancy that came to me while I was walking home. Odessa is no toy model and I am surely no miniature figure. I carefully cross the pitted street and pull off my gloves to fumble for the gate key in my purse (which I am still carrying). The bolt grinds back. The courtyard is dark. My narrow door squeaks open and my glasses fog in the sudden warmth. I lay down my package of buckwheat. I am at home. Inside the empty house the quiet breathing of the gas heater is the only sound, the blue flame at its base the only light.
Or is it? In the nativity scene the Christ Child was hidden down a back street somewhere, behind a door, through a crumbling, dimly lit arch. I looked for Him there on the edge of things but found Him deep inside, closer than my very heart.