Do My Ancestors Matter?

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The road to Bethlehem began in the northern town of Nazareth, a tiny backwater town in the Galilee region known for heavy accents and backward thinking. José hoisted the last of the luggage before helping his betrothed María, now with child, onto the animal. Together they set out on the long journey to fulfill the census demand by the colonizing power of Rome.

According to Luke’s gospel, José was required to return to his ancestral home to register. It was important that the couple made their way to the taproot of his family tree. Before there was a birth, there was a journey. Maybe this should not be surprising for a people given to genealogies detailing who begat whom, for a people who cared about bloodlines and birth places.

As the holy couple made their way across the undulating terrain, I imagine José regaling María with family stories, grafting her into the clan of King David rooted in the little town of Bethlehem. There was the one about the famine so severe that many fled to Moab of all places to find respite and work. One of the refugees was from their own family, Elimelek and his wife Naomi. But he died and his sons died and Naomi returned to Bethlehem with only a Moabite daughter-in-law. The people of the town were so kind, as Bethlehemites are known to be to this day, that they received Naomi and consoled her amid her multi-layered grief.

“But the story didn’t end there,” José continued. Another distant relative, Boaz, entered the story and volunteered to be a kinsmen redeemer for Naomi, marrying Ruth the Moabite, preserving the family name and adding to it with their son, Obed. “Such good men and strong women in this family,” María noted as she listened. Then there was Father Jesse and his bunch of sons—and the runt of the litter who became king! Yes, David, once a lowly shepherd rose to the throne and reunited the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel. “And his great, great grandmother was a Moabite woman…” María mused out loud. Maybe she fit into this family after all, she thought privately.

I watch José rehearse the family lore with pride as he remembers Boaz, Obed, Jesse and King David. I see María grafted into the family tree one story at a time. These people will be her people, and they will be the ancestors to her son. I wonder if his remembering and her learning are essential elements in the Christmas Story. Maybe ancestors matter.

My birth mother was Mexican, making me a Mexican-American. But this has been a slow-rolling revelation opening up to me later in life. How does my Mexican blood shape me? Could my Mexican nature offer redemptive trajectories for me? Do my ancestors matter? I’ve recognized traits in myself that are not anomalies if seen up against a Latin backdrop—a propensity for vigil candles, liberation theologies and icons throughout the house. There is a gravitational, or maybe generational, pull toward Latin American artists and thinkers; their view of the world nourishes me. So like María I feel a grafting into a deeper story, I am beginning to sense that I fit within the tradition of my Mexican ancestors.

The last couple of weeks I’ve read two books by Mexican-American theologians. Their work is birthed in Mexican neighborhoods, shaped at Hispanic tables surrounded by family and food. Their theology is written in English but heavily accented with Spanish words, revealing the deep Hispanic roots of their work. I’ve left tearstains on many of the pages, feeling a connection at a gut level to their words, especially those expressed in Spanish. Their way of thinking, formed in the barrios, unlocked something in me, even as that is not my own experience. I’ve been wondering: Is there such a thing as ancestral memory? Am I, like María, making my own return as I learn about my own heritage?

José and María arrive to Bethlehem. Sadly, no one takes them in. Perhaps they recognize José but refuse to easily accept the woman, pregnant with the child of Another, in their home. But by this time, even the local inns are full and the holy couple is left to wander in search of a place to sleep for the night.

I imagine that as they reached the outskirts of Bethlehem after sunset they crossed paths with some shepherds, outcasts and lowlifes populated the byways at night. And seeing the very pregnant, very exhausted woman they offered their own cave. “It’s no trouble. We will be out guarding the flocks most of the night. You can get away from some of the cold, at least.” So the couple follows the youngest to the cave while the others make their way back to the flocks. The place smells of shepherds and sheep, and the only bed will be one they cobble together with the straw scattered about. But José thanks the boy.

Once settled in the straw makeshift mattress, José mentions how that young boy resembles the young David, the runt who functioned as the family shepherd once upon a time. María crackes a smile. God has raised the lowly before, as she was fond of singing, he will raise the lowly again with the advent of her son. It was as if the boy was a reminder that sometimes the ancestors of kings are shepherds.

When the baby crowned amid the mess of straw and manure, God burst with pride. The celestial chorus was dispatched to the hills of Bethlehem where the shepherds kept watch over their flocks. “Glory!” came like a sonic boom. That’s why they were so afraid—it wasn’t a golden show of gentle song but an anthem that came like a quake. The choir kept announcing the good news, glory shared with the shepherds first.

It was another beginning, another shepherd. It was God beginning by preferring the outcast and lifting the lowly with glad tidings. This meant that the shepherds out in the crevices of the hills would be first to welcome Jesús to the world, first to greet the someday-king. Maybe the heavenly choir sang some of María’s song, “Lifting the lowly and filling the hungry, casting down the mighty and sending the rich away…”

Returning allowed José to remember more fully who he was. His remembering offered María the chance to discover who she now was as part of this family. Returning also meant the Christ Child was born in Bethlehem, as the prophets foretold. Luke wrote his gospel with the awareness that ancestors, prophets and lowly shepherds mattered. It’s the locus of God’s glory.

I wonder if that might be instructive to me as I consider my own story. When I’m attentive not only to the way I’ve been nurtured, but also to my Mexican nature, will I touch upon glory? Is there a luminous goodness in exploring my unearthed Hispanic heritage? Does my kinship with Mexican-American practitioners, Latina theologians and Mexican artists illumine something necessary in me, a generational connection rich in meaning? Perhaps God bursts with pride seeing the fullness of me, including my Mexican ancestry. Perhaps I can join in God’s glory in my Arizona suburb this Advent morning, as the pinkish hues give way to the gold crown of sun reigning down on me.

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Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley is co-director and chief storyteller for Communities of Hope, a community development enterprise in Burundi. She is also the author of Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World (Eerdmans).
Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley Nikondeha

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