I sat crunched between the arm rest and the side of our small MD-80 aircraft as we made our final descent into Albuquerque New Mexico. It was late Sunday night after a long liturgy and even longer flight; my feet ached, my head pounded, and I was in a rather unsavory mood. I contemplated how our skilled GOYA youth advisers convinced me, rather easily I might add, to leave the safety of the upper Midwest and lead them on a mission trip to the wilds of desert southwest and specifically to the Navajo nation.
As I sat there, feeling aggravated, the plane banked suddenly to the left, affording me an unexpected, breathtaking view of the sun setting behind a backdrop of jagged desert mountains of blazing ochre, crimson, and deep blue. In an instant, I realized why the state of New Mexico is called “the land of enchantment.” I knew in that moment the next few days would be transformative…not just for those being served, but also those serving.
After landing, I was immediately en route to Gallup, NM, the gateway to the Navajo reservation, to meet up with our two GOYA Advisors and the rest of our teenagers from Holy Anargyroi, Rochester, MN. We had come to assist YOCAMA’s annual mission to the Navajo people which included health screening clinics, construction projects, food deliveries to remote reservation locales, and work at a local food pantry. As we drove the 2+ hours in the moonless dark to Gallup, the memory of the glorious sunset waned, and my exhaustion began to make its presence known again.
By the time we pulled up to my small, yet nicely appointed, hogan (traditional Navajo-style cabin) at a local Roman Catholic retreat center, which would serve as our base, I wanted simply to retire and sleep!
I opened the door of the hogan, hastily entered, dropped my suitcase on the floor….and then stared God in the face.
His face was familiar, yet hitherto unknown; I recognized Him, yet I had never seen His face before. On the wall directly in front of me was an exquisite Byzantine icon with all the traditional and customary elements, even an inscription in Greek letters.
However, the Christ child’s face was a much deeper bronze, as was the face of the woman holding Him. He was not seated on His Virgin mother’s lap but rather was strapped to a wicker papoose cradle board. The Theotokos was wrapped in her traditional shawl, but it was a woven wool blanket, not one reminiscent of 1st century imperial Rome. She was adorned in jewels, again not the more typical diadems of royalty, but the celestial turquoise of the American desert. Circling the scene was a traditional Navajo Yei figure who’s artistic job was to describe communication and relationship between heaven and earth, between God and man. I was beholding the Navajo icon of the Incarnation.
I was floored. Never have I encountered such unconventional beauty in my life; rather than thinking it bizarre, anachronistic, and ahistorical…all I could call to mind was St Paul’s words to the Colossians: “Christ is ALL and in ALL.”
I honestly believe that encountering the Navajo Christ solidified a mysterious and intangible Truth of our Orthodox Faith: Christ through His condescension and incarnation has assumed, embraced, and deified ALL and every aspect of our humanity. Each and every possible human emotion and experience (apart from sin, naturally) He has made His own, and in doing so elevates all aspects of who we are as human beings to an eternal, divine plane.
That beautifully intimate moment of realization formed the theological foundation of my personal missionary work throughout our stay. Although the people I encountered looked very different from me, spoke a language I had never heard, ate a different diet, and essentially marched to the beat of a different drum (no pun intended)….it didn’t matter. There was no feeling of separation. There was no feeling of misunderstanding. There was no feeling of culture shock….notwithstanding our stark differences, we were united….and it took a Navajo Byzantine Icon to teach me that profound realization.
I pray that unexpected gaze from the Navajo Virgin and Christ Child serves as a continuous reminder to me, and now perhaps to you, that in Christ we are one…yet we maintain our distinct and unique personal characteristics that make the blanket of humanity as vibrant and multicolored as that New Mexican sunset.
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