Some years ago I was visiting a friend in Ecuador who was the new pastor of a church. He was painting the church with the help of some local people. At one point, one of the men on the scaffolding called across the church to me. When I turned to him, he had both his hands lowered, on each side of his body, and was making a flapping his hands as if to say to me, Get out of here. I was a little confused. So he called my name again, this time with more force. That didn’t clear things up for me. So he called again, and said, “Come here!”
There was a communication problem because the hand motion looked to me like get out of here. But that’s the hand motion for “Come here.” It takes some time to understand the signs of a new culture.
Last week, I emerged early in the morning from where I was staying and stepped out into the street. I was going to be picked up and taken to another village, and I was waiting for my ride to come. A young woman, who is mute, was standing on her balcony a bit down the road, but in clear view. When she say me, she raised hunched her shoulders and raised both of her hands. That means, what are you doing, are you leaving? Then, she took one arm and flung it in the direction of the road, in the direction of Quito. That means, are you going to Quito? I shook my head, and flung my arm in the other direction, but I started really low, swung my arm allll the way around, and ended practically behind my head. That means I’m going far in the other direction to Cielo Verde and those parts. Then she made a hand-mouth motion and pointed to me. That means, have you eaten? I looked back at the place where I was staying, and I extended both my hands in front of me and rotated them quickly back and forth. That is the universal negative sign, which means the hosts aren’t awake yet and I haven’t eaten breakfast. Then, I swung my right hand again in the direction of the street, which means that I’ll eat when I get there. We had a whole conversation even though not a word was spoken.
People in rural areas develop manual signs because they can be far apart and need to communicate. These signs are an important part of their language. If you don’t know them, you can be lost. If you know the signs, then you are part of the community.
In the Gospel, part of the Christmas story is the coming of the angel to the shepherds. The angel tells the shepherds that a Savior is born *for them*. An then the angel describes a sign *for them*: they’ll find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in an animal’s food trough. What is the point for the shepherds?
God now speaks their language. He speaks with signs.
He is one of them.
The mystery of Christmas is that God is with us. He now He speaks our language, He speaks in ways that we are accustomed to.
He is one of us.
“For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.
And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” (Lk 2:11-12)