“You know why Jesus had such a tough life?” my husband quips. “He was the only white guy in Israel.” No, my beloved is not being irreverent. He’s referring to the fact that in most depictions — including the statues in our own church — Jesus does not look Jewish. In fact, the entire Holy Family seems to have been Westernized, stripped of ethnicity — whitewashed.

Depicting the Holy Family in realistic ways throws people into tizzies. Take for instance this week’s disturbance at the Vatican. Two vandals threw statues depicting “Our Lady of the Amazon” (given to the Pope in honor of the Amazonian Summit) into a river. They were disgruntled that Mary was depicted as an indigenous Amazonian woman.

And yet: Our Lady of Guadalupe — a Mexican Mary — is the patron saint of the Americas. Our Lady of La Veng is Vietnamese. And so what? People are hung up on appearances. What they fail to remember is that none of us knows what Jesus, Mary or Joseph looked like. But I’ll bet you one thing: They didn’t look like WASPs.

What are we to make of them?
Of their glorious otherness?
It is too much for heart or hand
to hold. And so we shrink them,
squint to fade their margins,
blur the tricky bits. We do not
know a Mary with curves and kinky hair.
A dark-skinned man with a penchant for defiance
would make the neighbors edgy. His radical
proclamation of love, likewise, frightens.
(Ask Dr. King: Such things bring killing,
even today.) We make bland in our mouths
what is too rich to taste. And so they stand,
in churches, in cathedrals, looking like something
out of Central Casting. And we do not know them.