Las Posadas – Seeking shelter with María y José

What are your rituals leading up to Christmas? Shop till you drop? Getting ready for family visits? Ringing bells at the Red Kettle? Taking food to shut-ins? Caroling in the neighborhood?

Most of us have sacred or social rituals for the season. We decorate trees, put up manger scenes, and attend services of Lessons and Carols. In the Mexican congregation where I worship, we celebrate the las posadas.

Posada is the Spanish word for inn. During the nine nights leading up to Christmas Eve (la Noche Buena), las posadas in Mexican congregations reenact the journey of María and José to Bethlehem with carols and prayers.

Years ago, in Teotitlan, Oaxaca, Mexico, our family joined the town’s residents in a community posada that began at the church and processed along dark, cobbled streets, singing carols by candle and star light. Figures of María and José rode on a platform carried by four men. A brass band played as we walked. Here and there, the procession paused at a house, asking for shelter only to be refused. Then, when the procession reached the last house, the host admitted the people entered for a celebration with food.

Tonight’s posada in Minnesota won’t have an outside procession. Instead, we will meet in a chapel and the host family will process figures of María and José to the large nacimiento or manger scene before the altar. Then we will sing carols, read the Christmas gospel, and recite the rosary. After that, we will eat.

The posadas speak to hope in a world of hostility – then and now. María and José were strangers in Bethlehem, immigrants if you will. They knew no one, they needed help, and had to rely on the kindness of strangers for shelter. In this season, when we proclaim love and good will to all persons, let’s make our proclamations real by giving comfort to immigrants from all nations, and sheltering them from the flames of bigotry and hate stoked by ambitious public figures seeking their own ends.

The xenophobia of our time is identical to that of King Herod in the days of María and José. The fearful king asked the Magi where Jesus was born, not because he wanted to pay homage but to kill him. Herod slaughtered Hebrew boys in his attempt, and churches observe December 28 as Holy Innocents Day. More innocents will die in our time if we let fearful demagogues exclude refugees who face certain death from many causes. The story of María and José seeking shelter sheds light on what is best and worst in us. Strangers will knock on our doors. Do we have the will to open the door and admit them?

 

 

We are what we celebrate

What celebration expresses your identity, your being as a person? Is it Passover, Easter or Ramadan? Is it Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July? We all have them. For millions of Mexicans, it is the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Classic Guadalupe image

Classic Guadalupe image

Tonight Mexicans inside and outside Mexico celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupe. She is the one figure that transcends Mexican ethnicities, social classes and politics. As the writer Carlos Fuentes remarked: “You cannot truly be considered a Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe.” But who is she? And what does it mean to believe in her?

Indisputable information about Guadalupe is hard to come by and subject to interpretations and disputes. As the story goes, Mary the Mother of God (Jesus) appeared to an indigenous peasant convert named Juan Diego in 1531 on the hilltop of Tepeyac, a place where the Aztecs  worshipped Tonantzint, the mother of their gods. The brown-faced Virgin spoke to Juan Diego in Náhuatl, his native idiom, and asked that a shrine be built there. The story of the apparition spread, and millions of Aztecs converted to Catholicism. In time, the Church built a church on the site, now the most visited shrine in Mexico with December 12 is her feast day.

Guadalupe on a wall in Oaxaca

Guadalupe on a wall in Oaxaca

Guadalupe is everywhere in Mexico. Her image graces homes, shops, restaurants, walls,  T-shirts and posters. Men and women wear her medallion. Pedestrians pray at sidewalk shrines on their way to work. This protective mother silently watches over her ‘children’ in Mexico.

What do I make of this story of an apparition with miracles. My education steeped in scientific method and analysis, I look for verifiable facts as the basis for truth. Where’s the evidence that an apparition happed? Believers point to her image on a cloak whose origins remain obscure. It is easy to dismiss this as a folk-tale for the pious, or an intense psychological experience? Still, I’m not ready to dismiss all of it. We still don’t know enough about the nature of thoughts and emotions to pooh-pooh what we can measure by current methods.

Guadalupe at our church.

Guadalupe at Santo Nino Jesus.

Whether or not Mary’s apparition as Guadalupe happened isn’t as important as her impact on Mexico and Mexicans. Guadalupe is a profound force in the life of Mexico that can’t be ignored. Millions ask her to pray with and for them; they seek her protection, and guidance. In gratitude for prayers answered (I know some prayers are answered), or after receiving a milagro or miracle, many do works of mercy, compassion, and charity in her name. This is her power. Active devotion gives Guadalupe a corporal presence even as her spiritual existence remains  mysterious.

In my faith community, people will arrive at 10 p.m. and continue arriving after the celebration begins. The lights will be low and a large image of Guadalupe will stand in front of the pulpit surrounded by roses and lit by the flicker of devotional candles. Children dressed as peasants will sing to the Virgin. Then the procession to the altar will begin with a popular folk hymn to the Virgin with incense, acolytes, our priest and our bishop.

After the Eucharist and communion, a troupe of Aztec dancers in feathered headdresses, with shells on their ankles, will sway and dip before the statue, their bare feet flashing in time to the hypnotic drumming. Then, just before midnight, the band of mariachis will appear wearing short jackets bedecked with silver conchas, and serenade the Virgin with the melodious ‘Las mañanitas’, recounting her story and extolling her virtues. Afterward, we stay and eat tamales, pan dulce, and drink atole and chocolate. Tonight, if at no other time of the year, everyone knows who he is – Mexicanos.

Guadalupe at my home

Guadalupe at my home

As an American, I’m accustomed to national identity as loyalty to the Stars and Stripes, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These are the secular foundations of national unity. Thanksgiving Day and its association with the Pilgrims, is as close as we come to a national spiritual holiday. But Mexico evolved by other means and its cultural is more spiritual than political, one comprised of vibrant indigenous tradition

We are what we celebrate.

 

 

Las Posadas, rábanoes, y la nochebuena – it’s Christmas in Oaxaca

MINNESOTA September, 1995.

“Do you have a passport?” my wife asks me one evening.

“Yeah, but I think it has expired.  Why?

“Because Mom is taking all of us to Oaxaca for Christmas!”

Four months later, nine of us: my mother-in-law, sister-in-law and her family, my wife, our two grade school daughters, and I settle into our rooms at the Posada de Chencho.  Ollas, ceramics, and masks made by local artisans decorate the halls.  We lived within a long, narrow courtyard among poinsettia, bougainvillea, hibiscus, and bird of paradise plants.  This is the first of six Christmases we spend in Oaxaca, and they forever change our idea of this day.

‘Chencho,’ the posada’s Zapotec owner, a friend of my mother-in-law, knows everything about Oaxaca’s museums, shops, and festivals.  After a day in the city, we are overwhelmed by the its colonial center, the Zocalo, its vibrant colors, and rich scents.

It is December 21st but we feel a difference immediately.  Gone is the urgency over buying and baking for ‘The Day.’  The shops and markets are free of saccharine carols about tiny drums and partridges in pear trees.  It isn’t that Oaxacans don’t celebrate Christmas, it’s that they haven’t lost sight of its religious meaning.  The season begins December 16th with las posadas and lasts through January 6th, with gift-giving following the tradition of the Three Kings who brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus.

La Posada en Teotitlan

Freed from the ‘commercial’ burden of Christmas, we are at liberty to explore other options.  Chencho tells us there will be a posada that evening in the nearby Zapotec town of Teotitlan.  We go.

La posadas are an ancient Spanish tradition brought to Mexico.  Neighbors take the part of pilgrims – the Holy Family – and process through the streets to a particular house. They chant songs back and forth with the householder who acts as the innkeeper. Eventually the peregrinos are admitted and there is a party with food and drink.  Like Day of the Dead, and the Virgin of Guadalupe, the missionaries used las posadas to supplant an indigenous celebration of the winter solstice and (possibly) the birth of Huitzilopochitli, the Aztec god of war.

The posada in Teotitlan is already underway when we join it, moving slowly along the dark streets, led by children with candles.  Teotitlan is built on a hillside, its cobbled streets wind and dip, so we walk carefully to avoid loose stones and potholes.  The brass band ahead of us plays marching songs, and two men carry a platform with statues of Mary and Joseph in 16th century Spanish garb.  Bottle rockets flare upward and explode overhead with a flash.  Boys on bicycles pause for the procession, make signs of the cross and pedal away.  Somewhere ahead, but out of sight, the children with candles seek the house where la posada will end.

We leave before they reach the house but I’m aware of another part of the Christmas story: the poverty of Mary and Joseph, their perilous search for shelter, rejection by the comfortable, giving birth in a barn instead of an inn.  Its a mixture of wonder and misery could be a Mexican story.

La Noche de los Rábanoes

“Tonight we will see la noche de los rábanoes,” my mother-in-law tells us.  The Zocalo is set aside each December 23rd for the ‘La noche de los rábanoes’, a tradition since 1897, a huge cultural event.

With some skepticism, I wonder what is special about radishes; they’re small and I rarely eat them.  On this night there is a competitive display of figures and scenes carved from huge, specially-grown radishes.  That morning in the Zocalo, I watch men, women, and children carving and assembling the figures in their scenes.  Their paring knives flick and slice.  Pieces of radish become arms and legs, heads and torsos.  The red skin is scored and cut to create mouths, eyes, or designs on clothing.  Later that day, we’re among the thousands that patiently wait our turn to see the tableaux of the birth of Jesus, Santiago defeating the Moors, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Battle of Cinco de Mayo, and the Death of Zapata among others.  The winner is announced, but the prizes aren’t as great as the skill and dedication.

La nochebuena or Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve day is a Sunday, and we spend at the weekly tianguis in Tlacolula, one of the oldest continuous markets in Mesoamerica.  Here rural Mexicans in traditional dress buy and sell vegetables, kitchenware, jeans, shoes, tools, and necessities.  There are few tiendas or stalls selling items for tourists, and nothing indicates it is Christmas.  No special prices, no sales, no promotions, no pressure. (Heaven on earth!)

In Minnesota, we usually celebrate this evening (and my wife’s Norwegian heritage) with a meal of remembrance: meatballs in cream gravy, mashed potatoes, green peas, lefsa with butter and sugar, cranberries, and rice pudding.  Then we open gifts and go to church.  But tonight we eat a simple supper, or cena; Oaxacans have a civilization of three thousand years and a meal of remembrance isn’t needed.

We return to the Zocalo after dark.  Zapotec women in huipiles (indigenous dresses) offer to sell woven cloth and rebozos.  We buy some sparklers from a street vendor and join the throng of waiting spectators, but uncertain what we’re waiting for.  There is a murmur of expectant voices punctuated by the bottle rockets exploding overhead.

While we wait, we buy buñuelos at a stand.  They’re a flat, deep-fried pastry drenched in syrup and served in a simple clay bowl; a sweet, sticky Christmas tradition in Mexico.  Afterward, we join others in throwing the bowls over our shoulders – for luck.  It’s a tradition!

And then we hear a brass band playing off-key, and watch a long procession march toward the Zocalo.  Two women with a church banner, flanked by candle bearers, lead the way, followed by the band and marchers.  Behind them is a flat-bed truck with a girl dressed as Mary kneeling over a manger, and a boy as Joseph standing behind her.  More bands, processions, and floats approach from every corner of the city.  A man wears a bamboo frame with a wheel atop his head.  He lights the fireworks attached to the wheel, they set the wheel spinning as he runs around the square.

La nochebuena in Oaxaca is everything Christmas Eve is not in Minnesota: It’s a public celebration, a Mardi Gras, a college homecoming, and the July 4th all rolled into one, exuberant expression of joy.

“I like this better than a ‘Silent Night’ at home,” my wife says, thereby saying all that needs to be said.  How can one truly celebrate anything as great as the Messiah’s birth with only a pious hush?

Meanwhile, our eleven year-old daughter is talking to a Mexican girl in grade-school Spanish.  I can’t hear what they say, or understand it if I could.  They talk, putting their heads close together, and with shy smiles, exchange pieces of candy.  It’s Christmas.

La Navidad

Chencho throws a Christmas party for his guests but we are out-numbered by the members of his extended family.  First we have a cocktail party in the courtyard.  I ask for mescal, the fiery, local hooch made from maguey.  He serves it and points to a plate of salt containing the powdered remains of the maguey worm.  It’s an invitation and a dare.  I try it; the salty taste complements the liquor.

After cocktails, the children whack away at the piñata while blindfolded.  As the kids begin swinging, everyone yells directions and encouragement.  One by one, the clay piñatas are broken, candy spills onto the plaza, and squealing children scramble to get some.

After dinner, the courtyard falls quiet for naps and conversations about what we’ve seen and experienced.  Given the costs and hassles of holiday travel, we didn’t buy and bring Christmas gifts.  Traveling together is a gift in itself.  Since then, Christmases in Minnesota have never been the same.  We broke the habit of gift buying.  There’s no more suffering through frantic Black Fridays in search of ‘bargains.’  The day has largely reverted to a religious holiday of family and friends; a day of remembering Oaxaca.

Christmas is a theological idea expressed culturally.   Mexico, with its indigenous and Catholic traditions, keeps Christmas principally as a religious celebration.  But in the culturally diverse United States, the day is secularized into a common denominator.  It’s a pastiche of images from the Bible and folk tales, Mary and Joseph with Santa Claus and his elves; Dickens’ ‘Christmas Carol’ with the Gospel of Luke.  Christmas is wrapped in a peculiarly American sentimentality that overlooks the tribulations of Mary and Joseph; tribulations not dissimilar to the daily experience of many Mexicans.

Up next: Living on Mexican time.

The Virgin of Guadalupe – God’s feminine face

A hint of incense, with its sweet scent of mystery and sanctity, hung in the air of the semi-dark church.  Several hundred Mexican immigrants and a few Anglos filled the pews and more stood along the walls.  On a table beneath the rood beam, twinkling lights surrounded the statue of a woman  wearing a blue cloak with stars; her tranquil, brown face is turned aside, as if watching the boys at her feet, dressed in white ‘campesino‘ garb, and little girls with braids and long skirts, singing Spanish carols.  Happy parents watch, pleased they are passing their culture to the next generation.

It’s December 11, 10:30 p.m. and, to the sound of guitar music, the crucifer, the thurifer, the acolytes, the priest, and then the bishop walk up the center aisle to the sanctuary.  This is my church, El  Santo Nino Jesus, in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and as a new member, and this is my first experience with the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  And it has changed my perspective.

If you’re not a Mexican, you may find the rest of this post exotic, but stick with me.  And if you are Mexican, I hope I don’t give offense if I get this wrong.  Believing in the Virgin of Guadalupe goes to the heart of cultural differences between Mexican and North American spirituality.  My friends in Mexico and Minnesota believe so strongly in her existence and power I can’t dismiss it as unreal.  Believing in Guadalupe is a part of who they are, and a part of our friends.  Something I accept even if I don’t  understand it completely.

Nothing is as Mexican as the Virgin of Guadalupe.  She is the unifying figure for Mexicans of all classes and ethnicities.  As Carlos Fuentes remarked: “You cannot truly be considered a Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe.”  But who is she?  And what does it mean to believe in her?  And how do I understand her when I didn’t grow up under the Virgin’s guidance?

I grew up with the Virgin Mary as a figure from the Christmas Gospels, in Christmas pageants, carols, and creches. She seems so remote, so unnaturally pure as to be unreal.  I thought of her as the greatest of saints, the “Mother of God,” but abstractly as the name of a holy person along with Peter and Paul, Luke and Matthew.  Like them, she lived in a distant past and wasn’t a presence in the here and now.   That’s how I thought until I went to Mexico where she seems to be a fact of life.

So who is she?  What is my relationship to her – whoever she is?  Indisputable information about the Virgin of Guadalupe is hard to come by.  What there is, is subject to varied interpretations and disputes.  As the story goes, she appeared to an indigenous peasant named Juan Diego a decade after the Spanish conquista on the hilltop of Tepeyac, a place where the Aztecs had worshipped Tonanzintla, the mother of their gods.  The Virgin appeared with a brown face and spoke in Nahuatl, the indigenous tongue.  The Aztecs quickly embraced her and millions converted to Catholicism within a decade, despite the doubts of the bishop.  In time, the Church accepted the apparition as real and built a church on the site.  It is now the most visited shrine in Mexico.  December 12 is her feast day in the Mexican calendar.

I’ve never seen an apparition or met anyone who has, but I image it is intensely personal and makes a powerful impact on the person who has it.  But is it real?  Or is it a form of dreaming or hallucination or delusion?  For the millions who didn’t witness the apparition, the story of it rang true and they converted because of it.  A  woman, the Mother of God, like their Aztec mother of the gods, had appeared where they used to worship.  The effect was profound.

She was and remains a figure for all Mexicans.  When Padre Miguel Hidalgo raised the flag of Independence in 1810, he and his followers shouted: “Long live our Holy Mother the Virgin of Guadalupe, Death to bad government!”  Painting her image on their banners, the army of peasants and creoles fought and died by the thousands until Mexico achieved its independence in 1821.  Afterward, the victors gave thanks for Guadalupe’s intercessions as the source of their victory.  After a century of Independence, internal struggles, and dictatorship, Mexico erupted in Revolution.  The leaders had no consensus: Liberalism, monarchism, socialism, constitutionalism, and they led the country in different directions. Emiliano Zapata led his followers into battle under the banner of Guadalupe.  In 1995, the Zapatista Liberation Army of Chiapas named their ‘mobile city’ after Guadalupe. For a century, through good times and bad, the Virgin has been the unifying symbol, the rubber band, that binds together the disparate classes, ethnicities, political parties, and alliances that make up modern Mexico.   Unlike politicians, she is above criticism or doubt.

Everywhere I go in Mexico, Guadalupe looks upon me from posters, banners, and statues in store windows.  Men and women wear her medallions; she is silk-screened onto T-shirts, and painted onto walls.  Restaurants and businesses display posters or images of her.   Pedestrians pause at small shrines on the sidewalk to pray before going to work.  Like a truly protective mother, she is a silent presence watching over her ‘children’ in Mexico.  Guadalupe is syncretistic but there is substance as well.  The Biblical Mary was a decisive and powerful figure and not a passive vessel of popular piety.  Being pregnant out-of-wedlock in Judea would have brought about Mary’s death by stoning (had not Joseph agreed to marry her).  The “Magnificat” by itself is a  radical vision of social justice (as yet unrealized) that Jesus went on to proclaim as ‘good news.’  After giving birth, Mary  is a silent presence except at a wedding in Cana; a witness to the crucifixion and resurrection.

But all this is history and theology.  The facts are few and conjectural.  Whether Mary is a real figure in history, or whether Mary’s apparition as Guadalupe happened or not; the impact on Mexico and Mexicans is real and profound and can’t be ignored when learning to understand Mexican culture.

I was struck by Guadalupe’s power, if that’s what it is, on the day we installed her statue in the chapel at Santo Nino.  Someone donated the statue anonymously (anonymous donations are very Mexican).  Two women carried her statue forward and put it on a corner of the altar.  The priest blessed it with incense and holy water.  And, as the soloist sing “Ave Maria,” the women carried the statue to its place in the chapel.  I stood with my friends during the installation, seeing solemn, brown faces – men’s and women’s – wet with tears.  Their connection was deep, personal, and emotional; and I knew it was something outside my ability to experience.

Every Sunday, Angeles or other women from Santo Nino place fresh flowers before Guadalupe’s statue.  They place the flowers carefully, tenderly, and then stand back, offering prayers.  Looking on, I see their devotions are intimately personal, the silent or whispered conversations from their hearts between the women and Guadalupe.

Why do modern people – Mexicans or North Americans – believe in an apparition that happened nearly 500 years ago, if it happened at all?  Why do they believe in an apparition in which Mary returns as an indigenous woman?  Almost any other appearance would be treated like believing in UFO abdunctions, Big Foot sightings, or extra terrestrial origins of the pyramids.  Where’s the proof?

Those questions lead me to wonder about some sacred North American beliefs.  Why do we believe the “invisible hand” of the free market brings about the greatest good for the greatest number when the evidence is contrary?  And why do we still pay lip service if not outright devotion to the idea that “heaven” has a special mission, a “manifest destiny,” for the United States in world affairs not given to any other nation?  Why do we believe that?  It takes a large dose of hubris to believe in manifest destiny or American exceptionalism, and a certain moral blindness to believe in the goodness of the free market despite economic facts.  The free market and manifest destiny are abstract ideas but we accept them.  It’s even easier to believe in Guadalupe.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is a real and powerful force in Mexican life.  Millions ask her to pray with them and for them; they seek her blessing, protection, and guidance in all manner of causes and situations.  When their prayers are answered (and I believe some prayers are answered), or they receive a miracle, they gratefully undertake works of mercy, compassion, and charity.   I can’t think of many individuals (real or imaginary) who have inspired and commanded such devotion over so long a time.

Guadalupe wasn’t part of my spiritual formation in Minnesota.  I didn’t grow up with her watching over me from a wall in my home, in my church, or from a street corner shrine.  She didn’t exist in my world until middle-age and I find it impossible to make an emotional connection to her the way that “Amazing Grace” or other hymns give me a clutch in my throat.  Guadalupe for my friends and “Amazing Grace” for me have been indelible parts of our respective spiritual lives.  Memory is a part of our identity.

“What does the Virgin of Guadalupe mean to you?” I asked my friend, Maria, a woman of forty, a mother, and bookkeeper.

“She’s my spiritual mother,” Maria said.  “She’s the feminine face of God.”

Yes, now I understand.  Jesus taught that when we feed and clothe the poor, or heal the sick, or visit the prisoners, we are doing these things to him as well.   And from that, we are taught to seek the face of Jesus in the people around us or to be his face to others.  Seeing Guadalupe as the feminine face of God makes sense.

Tonight we will celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  I’ll be there as the music swells, the priest and bishop elevate the bread and wine in the Eucharist.  I’ll be in line with the others, filing forward  to receive the Body and Blood of Christ.  And then I’ll pause before the Virgin’s statue to say a prayer.  After the communion, the Aztec dancers will file in, their feathered headdresses waving, the shells tied to their ankles rattling softly.  While the drummers pound a hypnotic rhythm, the dancers will sway and dip before the statue, their bare feet flashing and the shells rattling.

And after the dancers, the mariachi, six men in tight pants and short jackets adorned with silver conchos and buttons.  They will stand before the statue with guitars, violin, and trumpets to play and sing “Las Mananitas,” a traditional song for birthdays.  We will stand and sing with them as the last of the incense drifts over us and the music fills us with the joy of celebrating the day of our spiritual mother, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the feminine face of God.

Next post: La Navidad in Oaxaca – las posadas, calendas, and fireworks