DANCES WITH WORDS: The Bethlehem story happens every day

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Nick Wolochatiuk

What will you do if a stranger leading a donkey with a pregnant woman riding upon it shows up at your front door on Wednesday December 25, 2013?

Prairie artist William Kurelek’s book “A Northern Nativity” has 20 delightful paintings of ‘supposing contemporary Christmases’. Through them he explores how people would deal with needy travellers appearing at the door today.

The strangers are Mary, Joseph and the newborn Christ child. In one of his many dreamings, Kurelek sees the Inuit opening their igloo door to them (Hmmm…do igloos have doors?). In another scenario, the holy family takes refuge in a prairie rancher’s hay barn. Kurelek sees the trio sheltering in an empty CN boxcar. The door of the shack of an Indian trapper family is flung open to them. Joseph’s beater of a car has died at the side of a mining town’s ore tip; a dump truck driver, carrying his tool box, stops to help.

Mary and Joseph approach a luxurious alpine ski resort; I wonder if a welcome will be offered to them. When Joseph approaches a lobsterman’s wharf, he has to listen to the litany of excuses as to why he is unwilling to help. “Go somewhere else” is the gist of his message.

There is a depiction of a ‘ma and pa’ gas station. Its lights have been extinguished for the night. The prairie town’s row of grain elevators, a water tower and a motel with a ‘no vacancy’ sign are in the background. It seems the holy family has been allowed to overnight in the warm service bay.                 

In December of 1978 our family of two small children (both under the age of five) and a little white dog were making our annual Christmas pilgrimage from Williamstown to my parents’ home in Toronto. Somewhere along Highway 2 our ‘donkey’ (an aging 1973 Westfalia van) started to falter. It came to rest at a ‘ma and pa’ gas station.

“You can park here until we close for the night at ten o’clock, but after then you’ll have to move on.” When our two curious youngsters appeared at the window, the owner just ambled off to his home directly across the street.

Not the slightest token of hospitality was extended. No invitation to come in to use their washroom, no offer of some hot chocolate for the kids. We huddled together to stay warm through the chilly night. Miraculously, our sojourn seemed to clear up whatever was ailing the van. At the break of dawn, we moved on.

It made me think of a scriptural quote Kurelek included in his rendition of the first Christmas: “…when you did it to one of the least of My brethren, you did it to me.”   

Where would the Holy Family be most likely to be welcomed today? By the residents of the brightly-lit mansion with a 15-foot inflatable snowman on the front lawn? By the Shepherds of Good Hope Mission in Ottawa? By the family of a laid-off Leamington tomato-processing worker in a modest rural home?

How will your home receive the stranger who appears at your door?

Organizations: CN

Geographic location: Bethlehem, Williamstown, Toronto Ottawa Leamington

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