By BISHOP EDWARD J. BURNS
December 21, 2014 – FOR THE JUNEAU EMPIRE
Among the many joyful customs associated with Christmas in our own country and around the world, I’m thinking this Christmas of Las Posadas. This nine-day Catholic celebration is observed in Mexico and Latin America and by Hispanics throughout the United States. For nine days, from Dec. 16 to the afternoon of Dec. 24, pilgrims process through the streets, re-enacting the search by the Mary and Joseph for lodging in Bethlehem.
The procession is usually at night and is led by a man and a women (or a boy and girl) dressed as Joseph and Mary (sometimes the expectant mother is seated on a donkey). Children dressed as angels and saints follow. They go from house to house. They knock on the door and at first the “innkeeper” tells them to go away, that there is no room at the inn (just as it occurred in the story of Christmas in Luke’s gospel).
Eventually, the “innkeeper” relents and opens the door to them. There is a moment of prayer and song and the procession moves on. Each day’s celebration concludes at a house or at the parish church, where, after prayers and song, the doors open wide and the celebration begins as everyone shares food and drink provided by the generous host.
It’s a beautiful ritual that for over 400 years has taught generations of Hispanics (and teaches us as Americans) how central the virtues of hospitality and solidarity are for the Christian and the moral life. Las Posadas is both fun and has a serious moral and spiritual teaching to convey.
As we reflect on the story of the birth of Jesus, we are invited to ponder the various characters in the story. There is the young couple, arriving tired and footsore in a crowded town full of strangers, searching for someplace, anyplace, to find lodging for the night. Then there is the innkeeper, who has no room for them to stay in but eventually offers shelter for the night in his barn. He has no room, yet unwilling to turn them away he finds them a place to stay.
Seeing himself in that desperate couple, the inkeep made room for them. Others turned them away, but this man was different. Maybe what made the difference is that he had already had a lot of practice being hospitable. That’s the way it is with any virtue: choosing the good over and over first becomes habitual, then it becomes more; it becomes a spiritual practice that is a part of who a person is.
Let me offer this illustration. Many of us have the experience every year of preparing for Christmas by putting up a Christmas tree in our house. It is customary in my house that I have to move a big round coffee table that sits between two chairs out to the garage, and I push the two chairs to either side in order to make room for the Christmas tree. It is just natural that I have to make space in my living room for this Christmas tree.
Similarly, at Christmas time, it is important that we make room in our hearts for Christ, to clear things out of our lives that we consider “priorities” and bring Christ into some prominence in our lives, just as the Christmas tree has some prominence in our living rooms. In the same way, let us reflect on how we offer the hospitality that Christ speaks of (“When I was hungry, you gave me food, when I was thirsty, you gave me drink, naked and you clothed me, homeless and you gave me shelter…” Mt 25:35-40).
Las Posadas is nine days in length for the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy. But I think that the daily and yearly repetition of this celebration helps those who participate to better grasp the importance of hospitality to strangers and solidarity with those in need.
Lebanon is a long way from Mexico, but over the past two years, as the Syrian war displaced millions of refugee families, I recall how the people of Lebanon of all religious communities absorbed over 1 million Syrians. Churches, mosques and schools sheltered some, but most were personally given shelter in the homes of individual Lebanese families. To me their hospitality is an example of truly remarkable solidarity.
Here in our own country, we should find it in our hearts as Americans to find a place of shelter and safety for families, especially unaccompanied minors crossing from Mexico into the United States, fleeing the violence and chaos in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
As we prepare to celebrate Christmas in just a few short days, this is a time to reflect on the good news of the birth of Jesus. Coming not in power and majesty, but as a tiny infant, born in a stable to a poor family, Jesus is revealed as Emmanuel, God-with us, who has come to overthrow the power of sin and death in our lives and in our world.
The time is close: let us make room for Him in our hearts.