On a recent morning, in what passes for winter here in Southern California, I arrived at White Point Preserve for an early morning walk just before sunrise. Fog was obscuring both landscape and sky, and as I took the first few steps onto the trail I heard something calling in the distance.
I had to listen for a minute or two before I figured out what it was: a peacock!
Someone for whom the peninsula has long been home would have figured it out immediately. As a fairly recent transplant, the echoing cry has not yet become obvious to me. I still have to think through its identification.
The sudden appearance of peacocks as I go about my duties and my errands continues to surprise me. As I find my way into a neighborhood to make a visit to someone’s home for the first time, the sight of peacocks strolling around in the road or posing on the lawn causes me to stop and admire the intense plumage.
These birds have not been a standard feature of any place I have ever lived. The closest equivalent I can think of is the colorful chickens which populate the island of Kauai, where I was placed in my first pastoral assignment more than 30 years ago.
Peacocks, however, strike me as more exotic than chickens. Maybe it’s because before I came to work and live here, I associated peacocks with the zoo of my childhood in San Diego.
At the church I serve now, here where the peacocks roam, on the morning of Dec. 24, I spent some time with children of our church looking at some artwork created by John August Swanson. Swanson is a Los Angeles artist whose depictions of Biblical scenes have offered insight, encouragement, and inspiration to many people.
The picture we were studying in this case illustrated many scenes of village life in Nazareth. In the foreground, an angel was addressing Mary, who still held a broom in her hands, as her evening chores were not yet complete.
The children and I noticed that among the birds and animals in the trees and bushes and pathways of the town was a peacock! Suddenly we felt we had more in common with the people of the time and place where Jesus was born than we may at first have realized.
Swanson apparently likes peacocks. He also put them in the picture when visually telling the story of the wise men who journeyed to visit a newborn king and, like the angel Gabriel, ended up at Mary’s home.
The inclusion of peacocks, along with camels and horses, and maps and a telescope, and servants carrying lamps help to humanize the biblical story. Details we can recognize from our own lives (people preparing food, putting their children to bed, reading or visiting with one another at the end of the day, listening to soothing music as they drift off to sleep) help us to connect with the questions and quandaries, the hopes and the dreams of those who long ago were encountering mystery and wondering about purpose just as we are today.
Artistic depictions can help biblical stories come alive. Statuary, paintings, stained glass windows, mosaics, fabric art, and wood carvings are some of the media commonly found in churches for the teaching and strengthening of faith.
Our congregation finds joy, curiosity, and hope in the many of Swanson’s serigraphs we have displayed around our campus. When I visit other places of worship, I am always eager to see the artwork that speaks to and about the faith practiced in that place. It can be an eye-opening and heart-opening experience to see the world, and the sacred text, from someone else’s point of view.
Sometimes we recognize a feature that mirror our own lives and contexts. Other times not. Either way, we can expand our understanding.
The community we live in is unique. At the same time, it is true that we have much in common with communities the world over. The other spot I have been on the globe where peacocks had the range of the place was somewhere outside the city of Quito, in Ecuador.
The possibility of recognizing a kinship with people of the past or with people of distant lands, or even with our nearest neighbors, is one of the great gifts of being alive. For the way artists, children, and wildlife help us to receive this gift, I am grateful.
April Herron is the Associate Pastor at Rolling Hills Methodist Church