Celebrants press wall-to-wall into houses where we gather, forty to sixty people, night after night reciting the prayers and singing the songs of Las Posadas. Steamy windows emanate light into winter’s deepest dark. Posadas (translated literally as “lodgings”) take place each night from December 16 through Christmas Eve and reenact Mary and Joseph’s attempt to find lodging in Bethlehem. The tradition originated in Spain and was carried to Mexico. The uniquely Mexican version seems to have started in 1538, when Spanish friars intent on assimilating the faith with Aztec rites, combined posadas with the nine-night winter ritual of imploring the sun god’s return. Mexicans still celebrate posadas, enlivening them with balloons and papel picado, and the shrieking of children as candy erupts from handmade piñatas.
On foggy Oregon coast nights, in the homes of immigrants who work among the cows and hay of our nativities, who struggle to find open doors at banks, at college departments of financial aid and dental offices, at the Department of Motor Vehicles, we await the advent of Jesus, the one with no place to call home. I stand shoulder to shoulder with my Mexican friends in their rented houses that have seen better days, that sleep several children to a bedroom and boast a shrine of mother Mary, the Virgen of Guadalupe, surrounded by frolics of icons. I sing along with the “posada song”, pretending to be Mary and Joseph at the door of the inn (and on other nights, the innkeeper, roused from his sleep and ill-tempered). And as each night passes, I begin to understand a part of the Christian story I have previously not understood. Mary and Joseph were like these Mexican immigrants. And I, standing there in my invisible cloak of privilege, will find it harder to know them.
Mary and Joseph were Galilean. And the people from Galilee were belittled in Bethlehem and throughout Judea. In a reversal of geography, they were the disregarded neighbors from the backwater north, the presumed uncouth and superstitious and freeloading and restive. In Judea where they went to pay taxes, they were shut out as a matter of course. Galileans were stereotyped by Judeans as lawbreakers. Galilee was a renegade land that spawned messianic movements awaiting the coming of the Lord, a new day of fairness—movements started by leaders like “the Egyptian,” or “Judas the Galilean,” that were historically successful. That is, until the Romans got miffed and sent riot police to disband or kill them or paramilitary troops to intimidate them, or turned on them their own client kings like Herod Antipas, who wiled away the wealth of his subjects, sending them to border towns to pay their dues.
At times the term “Galilean” was used in Jesus’ day to simply mean an outsider, especially of the political sort. Galilee was a center of economic protest, where the messiah named Jesus would wax prophetically on wealth and the sharing of it, on how the rich couldn’t make it into heaven any more than they could make it through the eye of a needle, or the Rio Grande, or a few days in the Arizona desert. In his last years, Jesus’ friends and audience were Galilean fisher-folk, and according to Roman values, dwelt at the bottom of the labor pool. In the words of Cicero, quoting the well-bred Terence: “The most shameful occupations are those which cater to our sensual pleasures: ‘fish-sellers, butchers, cooks, poultry-raisers, and fishermen’” (Cicero, On Duties 1.42). In our day, Cicero might have added hotel cleaners, line cooks, gardeners, vineyard or dairy laborers, makers of Versace denim jeans.
At Posadas, we are reminded by word and ritual that God chose an indigent, young Galilean girl, “Alegría,alegría!” We pray for the immigrants facing deportation, for the women with back pain and diabetes who need strength to rise each day and make two dozen beds. We pray for the children, for the church and its message of good news. We pray for the high school students fighting for a chance at a dream.
The litany, prayers and songs culminate in a meal, a feast of hospitality that night by night includes carnitas, tacos, tamales, pozole, always accompanied by rice and beans and a prismatic display of salsas. After dinner, children swing at brilliant piñatas.
For reasons unknown, the children flock to me, throwing hugs around me like coats on a rack. They glow with beauty and unyielding hope, and in America they are not unlike Jesus and his friends running about Jerusalem at Passover, yet unaware of how they are seen, or who they will become, only that they love the songs, the traditions of Christmas, the smell of the Passover tamales, and the community of Galilean pilgrims who love them. These children know only that Jesus and his parents were poor and had to stand at a door and knock only to be ignored, and then finally let into our broken and peregrine hearts as the queen and kings of heaven.