Coming in from the back porch after my run tonight, I picked up James Vance Marshall's 1959 novel Walkabout, which for some reason had fallen off the bookshelf into the stuffed animals. Just looking at the cover, the silhouette of an Aborigine boy standing on a rock at sunset, I was back in my classroom at Central High in Philadelphia, where I taught two sections of freshman English. Walkabout was a summer reading assignment. The theme of our year was "Search for Self." My classes were great at Central: inquisitive, creative, enthusiastic, and bright. When I left to come teach at Masterman (where my classes are also great), we all promised to keep in touch, but of course the rushing river that is life soon swept us along and far from each other (or at least me far from them). They graduated last year and are now off at colleges around the country. But I digress.
I opened to the first page of Walkabout out of curiosity, as I hadn't read it in five years. "It was silent and dark, and the children were afraid," the book begins, "...the little boy nestled more closely against his sister. He was trembling." The story, as many people know (the book was a bestseller, and there's a movie, too), is about a brother and sister whose parents die in a plane crash in the Australian Outback, hundreds of miles from civilization. They meet an Aborigine youth on his "walkabout," a test of manhood, and must undergo a walkabout of their own in order to survive. This is of course the 1950s and the brother and sister, from North Carolina, have all kind of ideas about the superiority of their own culture, ideas of superiority that begin to dissipate throughout the novel. What I had forgotten before I picked up the book again tonight was that the brother's and sister's names are Peter and Mary. Two more Christian names there could not be: Peter, of course, being the disciple who in his fear abandons Jesus (and then goes on to found the church), and Mary, Jesus' mother, who stays with him even at the foot of the cross.
As we enter this Advent season I have my own little Mary on the creche on my fireplace. She is surrounded by the sheep, the hay, the three wise men, and Joseph. They all, of course, are surrounding the baby, Jesus. The scene is quiet and humble. It is not self-aggrandizing or coercive or critical, as "Christianity" or "The Church" sometimes appears to be (and I say this as a Christian and a member of the Catholic Church). It is not smug. Nor is it loud. No, it is humility and love that I see in my creche on the fireplace. Humility and love, of course, being the path to God. A path we're trying to clear this Advent season (and again, and again, and again throughout life). I believe in this humility and love. I believe in Jesus. But I know that, like Mary and Peter in Walkabout, if I only wrap myself in comfortable ideas about my culture and my religion, I am moving away from the place of beauty in my soul that the manger represents. I am moving away from God.
In Walkabout, Mary does this, and despite her good intentions, her ignorance brings about the death of the Aboriginal boy. His last action is to smile at her. For me, it is the most moving scene of the book: "It was the smile that broke Mary's heart: that last forgiving smile. Before, she had seen only as through a glass darkly, but now she saw face-to-face. And in that moment of truth all her fears and inhibitions were sponged away, and she saw that the world which she had thought was split in two was one." As Christmas approaches this year, may we all prepare to see God face-to-face.