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Christmas: A Cross-Cultural Holiday

  • Dec 17 / 2013
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Christmas: A Cross-Cultural Holiday

by Christena Cleveland

14 So then, since we have a great High Priest who has entered heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to what we believe. 15 This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin.  (Hebrews 12)


I’ve often wondered how Jesus, a first century Jewish man, could possibly understand what it is like to be me, a 21st century black woman. You see, I hardly ever meet present-day people who truly empathize with my experience as a black woman. I’m always shocked (and a little bit encouraged) to meet Christians who are really working to empathize across cultural lines because they’re such a rarity in the Church.

Most non-black people don’t seem to understand in the slightest what it’s like to be a black person (and far too few have really, truly tried). Men don’t seem to understand what it’s like to be a woman. And almost no one (outside my cultural group) understands the complexity of being both black and female.

But somehow Jesus does?

Somehow Jesus knows what it’s like to be tested like I am? Somehow Jesus knows what it’s like to be the only female speaker on a conference stage full of men? Somehow Jesus knows the loneliness and pain of being the only African-American faculty member on a Christian college campus? Somehow Jesus knows what it’s like to, in the span of two months, celebrate “how far we’ve come” since the 16thStreet Baptist Church bombing in 1963 (that killed 4 little black girls) and mourn the current day murder of Renisha McBride (another innocent black girl)? Somehow Jesus knows that it’s like to be tested by weak apologies from people in power, injustice in churches, and the cries of students of color on Christian college campuses?

Yes. Yes, he does. Somehow.

My understanding of Jesus is so corrupted by my understanding of humankind that I sometimes forget that Jesus’ inadequacies as fully human are augmented by his adequacies as fully God. But the Incarnation makes it possible for him to truly understand the experience of a 21st century black woman. The Incarnation is the foundation of all cross-cultural empathy; it all started at the first Christmas, when Jesus landed on earth and launched the first cross-cultural mission the world had ever known.

If Jesus had wanted to stick to his cultural comfort zone, to be perfectly understood by those around him, to only spend time with those who spoke his language and shared his worldview, he never would have come to earth. By temporarily leaving the celestial community of the Trinity (the purest, most cohesive, most supreme cultural group ever) to embody humanity and commune with us, he inaugurated a world of cross-cultural relationships, proving that he can empathize well across cultures.

OK, “empathize well” is an understatement. Jesus’ cross-cultural empathy skills are perfect. Jesus doesn’t just try to relate. He relates. He doesn’t just try to forfeit his cultural preferences. He forfeits his cultural preferences. He doesn’t justtry to be aware of his privilege and power. He is aware of his privilege and power.

He is perfectly cross-cultural. He is perfectly incarnational.

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