Skip to content

While the Moose Looked On

Just looking at the photograph of the “First Nations” Nativity makes me cold, perhaps because it was mighty cold the day I stood in the snow and took it. As the locals put it, the way to survive winter in that part of the world is to embrace it which probably explains why we live in a more sensible climate.

The location is Canmore, a mountain resort community about fifty miles west of Calgary on the road to Banff. The life-size display draws our attention first to “Mary and Joseph,” members of the First Nations community. (In our country, we refer to Native Americans, Canadians to First Nations.) The manger holding the Child and his family are positioned in front of a teepee. Looking on are various critters from the surrounding forest who have come to witness this unusual birth, a moose, buffalo, skunk, and beaver. Completing the scene is a canoe. Like a canopy, a string of lights stretches from one end to the other, though they are not lit in the daytime.

In other words, we’re looking at the Gospel, First Nations style.

The cultural context in which a people grapple with their religious affirmations will inevitably influence how those affirmations take shape in language and art alike. Much closer to home, this lesson was illustrated by a Protestant church that had recently closed. Early in its life, its Anglo membership had placed in the sanctuary the familiar and ever-so-popular Sallman Head of Christ (the 1940 portrait of Jesus by the American artist Warner Sallman). Reproduced over half a billion times by the end of the 20th century, that rendition of Jesus graced countless churches.

Many of us don’t even have to see it to know what portrait I have referenced.

Anyway, that church shared its property with a Hispanic congregation which continued to use the property after the Anglo congregation concluded its ministry, and one of its first actions when it had the building to itself was the removal of that portrayal of Jesus. The “White Jesus” is gone forever, as one former member put it.

Who know what, if anything, will take its place as a representation of the Hispanic understanding of the faith informed by their culture, but undoubtedly their culture will intersect with their faith as reflected in their art. I think of Jesus as depicted by Nicaraguan peasant artists whose faith draws inspiration from Liberation Theology. Jesus is undeniably human, his most faithful disciples are women, and his executioners are the US-supported Nicaraguan National Guard.

We might expect a black Jesus for the black church but consider the message conveyed by the painting which featured a woman, black or white, posed like Jesus on the cross! Religion and art—really, religion and culture—inexorably mix and support each other