Nativity: “What do you see?”

Charles Page, an old friend and biblical archaeologist extraordinaire, included in the Foreword of his book Jesus & the Land a story appropriate for Christmas Day. As a freshly-minted graduate student, Charles returned to Israel to meet Bargil Pixner (1921-2002), who became his friend and mentor:

He took me to Capernaum and said he wanted to “see what I had learned.” We entered the Franciscan park where people come to see the ruins of St. Peter’s house and the fourth-century CE synagogue, and Bargil said, “So, tell me what you see!” I proceeded to talk about lintels, inscriptions, the insulaea, and the synagogue. He listened patiently. When I finished talking, he said, “Look deeper and tell me what you see.” I explained to him about the millstones, olive presses, harbor, and the street running alongside the synagogue to the lake. He asked again, “What else?” I said, “That’s about all I see.”

He led me into the synagogue, and we sat on the bench that surrounds the interior wall, I could tell that he was disappointed, but I did not know why. He turned to me and said, “You must see Jesus here. If you do not see Jesus in the ruins of Capernaum, you should have studied physics. We are involved in biblical archaeology. Our job is to know him and to make him known. Seeing him helps us to know him. Knowing him leads us to love him. Loving him will help us to serve him and to make a difference in the world.

When I look at a nativity scene (a creche, a manger scene), I hear Pixner’s question: “What do you see?”

From Jesus and the Land, Charles R. Page II, Abingdon Press, 1995

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