Sermon by Bishop Paul Marshall
Cathedral Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
Christmas Eve 2012
5:00 p.m. Eucharist
I have been coincidentally reminded several times this week that it was here in the Lehigh Valley that I have celebrated my only Spanish confirmation service, along with two of my few Spanish eucharists. Learning to say the Spanish liturgy is not hard—the major trick for somebody with my background is to remember that it is NOT Latin. What was the more complex gift to me in getting involved in that phase of Trinity Easton’s ministry was learning more of the customs of Latino Christians so that my halting conversations with them could be a little more meaningful. And they were generous in teaching. Not surprisingly, many Latino church customs are a unique blend of non- or pre-Christian culture with the overall faith of the Church, just as are many familiar customs that are imported, such as the Advent Wreath and Christmas Tree that come from Germans. When cultures mix with faith, powerful traditions grow.
There is a Central American custom that I hope we will pick up as the culture of the USA becomes more diverse. It is an observance of the nine days before Christmas as Las Posadas, the dwellings. It is originally from Spain, but in troubled America Central it took on a certain passion.
That is, people who have deep memories of oppression, homelessness, and persecution, gravitate naturally to the fact that when Joseph and Mary as poor people sought shelter, they had to take whatever hospitality they could get, if they could get it. When at long last Mary and Joseph got to Bethlehem, there was no room for such as them as they went from inn to inn. “No room for them” should be read as “no room for THEM,” as it was anciently a polite expression of contempt. They were poor, dirty from travel, and there were rumors about her. And just as they flashed on in this country in the 1950s, the motel sign repeatedly switched to “no vacancy” when the couple from Nazareth appeared. So they wandered, seeking La Posada, seeking some shelter.
Nowadays, on the nine evenings of Las Posadas, Dec 16-24, Latino people practice going to each other’s dwellings, and the hospitality they celebrate is an affirmation of decency and compassion. It is also defiance of anything in human nature that rejects Christ by denying, marginalizing and ignoring those who are even a little different. Especially children. They ask at each place they visit, “¿dónde está la posada?,” where is the dwelling? Wouldn’t the world be different if we asked that of ourselves each day.
There are regional variations on Las Posadas, but in each version the heartbreak of Mary and Joseph’s story is felt yet overcome. The end of the story on these nights is that Joseph and Mary are recognized as who they are, lights are lit, and there is general rejoicing.
When Central American people celebrate Las Posadas, they celebrate the light, celebrate hospitality, and then party with the kids. (There are plenty of YouTubes you can watch.) They remember together that sure, it was only a stable, but someone was decent enough to let the very pregnant Mary have a shelter in which to have a baby. From that shared space comes a great joy which shall be for all people.
Las Posadas ends up with parties for the children and the famous piñata appears: nobody ever needs to apologize for enjoying children, and, ahem, especially grandchildren.
But it was quite a move on God’s part to enter the world as a child, and in that child come to save us, wasn’t it? God knows that we are at our most receptive when we encounter a child, and as we sing Silent Night every heart opens a crack more toward a deeper relationship with our maker and redeemer. There is chance to open ours wide. Where is the dwelling we make for him?
Beyond the children, though, the nine days of Las Posadas are nine days about ritually remembering being outcast, marginalized, unwanted and rejected. It is about remembering that all three of the stories we hear in church tonight were told in times of threat and pain. Almost every group in America has experienced alienation at one time or another. In Las Posadas, each of us remembers our ancestors journeying, whether that journey was voluntary or in chains. Each of us remembers that nobody creates their own life and that we are redeemed because of a simple act of ancient hospitality by which Christ could enter the world.
But most of all, in a difficult and tragic year in our country, we may wish to remember the light and the piñata at the end of Las Posadas. It is in the darkness that we best see the light. As to the strangers themselves, we remember that Jesus had in mind our own coming to life spiritually when he told us, “whatever you do the least of my brothers and sisters you do to me.” The Posada Principle, if Robert Ludlum wrote sermons.
Jesus would spend his life at the margins of society, would usually have no place to sleep unless friends helped him out. He lived and worked largely among those whom he called “the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” He, poor as he was, says to them and to each of us that we should come to him with our burdens and he will refresh us. He gives us new life by sharing his life, sharing his life of prayer and care for the sick and needy, sharing his life by pouring it out for us.
Do any of us need cheering up this season? Think of Las Posadas and welcome Jesus, Mary and Joseph and see if it doesn’t help. Smile at a stranger as you walk around the corner at New Bethany. Sign up for “Home for Supper” on Jan 25 at Nativity and you could enter someone else’s dwelling for the first time, mindful of what is being enacted. The next time you give a hand-out on the street or serve somebody at a soup kitchen, tell them your name and ask them theirs. The simplest things can point to the ancient Bethlehem dwelling that takes us all under its roof.
But more than that, when we remember this night’s events in Bethlehem of Judea, the light the star and the radiance the angels shed change the way we look at those around; it changes the way we see those struggling in any way with life; it especially changes how we see the physically needy and endangered, the people who at this very moment live under the Hill-to-Hill Bridge, the New Street Bridge, the parking garages…and the people who will this week come to churches like Nativity for shelter on the coldest nights of the year.
We who know the light of Christ find our brightest moments when we give home and hospitality to the souls and bodies of all we meet.
¿Dónde está la posada?
[point to heart] Está aqui.