The Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, verse 7, says, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
Because there was no place for them in the inn. That detail goes by fast, and it’s so familiar. And we love that the Holy Family ends up in a barn – the image of God Incarnate born among sheep and cattle and donkeys and chickens. If there had been room at the inn, there wouldn’t be ANIMALS in our Nativity scenes!
But this verse – there was no place for them in the inn – It’s an insult. It’s a failure. Hospitality was, and remains, terribly, terribly important in the cultures of the Middle East. And hospitality is a theme throughout scripture – the blessings that come when you practice it; the shame and danger that can follow, when you fail to welcome a guest.
Today we’ve shared a garland of stories of strangers and guests in Scripture, to help us reflect on that detail from the Nativity story: “There was no place for them in the inn.” Later, as a grown man, Jesus says about himself: “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58) And it’s true even now, at the very beginning of the story: God’s incarnate presence among us begins with closed doors and angry faces. With failed hospitality.
This Advent and Christmas we are exploring together the music and meanings of Las Posadas, a custom found in many parts of the Spanish-speaking world. The word “Posada” means “inn.” Las Posadas is a community acting-out of Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Mary and Joseph knock at many doors and are rudely turned away. The asking – and refusing – take the form of a song, sung back and forth between the people participating. In some versions, the Devil also plays a role, sneering at them and telling them to go away! Watch for that in our Christmas Eve pageant this year! Finally, finally, Mary and Joseph find welcome -a kind person allows them to stay in her barn. There’s a welcome song too: “Enter, enter, holy pilgrims, holy pilgrims! Welcome to my humble home. Though ’tis little I can offer, I can offer, all I have please call your own.” We’re singing some Las Posadas music today – and we’ll hold our Posadas this Saturday evening at 5pm. I hope you’ll come!
Why are we doing Las Posadas this year? Well, one reason is to broaden our sense of our church and our faith. Midwestern Episcopalians tend to think of both our churches and our tradition as basically Anglo – white, and English in both origin and language. And that’s not true. There are lots of non-Anglo Episcopalians. In particular, Latino and Latina Episcopalians are a vibrant presence in the Episcopal Church. Even in Madison, Wisconsin! It’s been a gift to me as an Anglo to realize that our way of faith is bigger than my cultural experience. I am a cradle Episcopalian, friends, this church’s music and prayers are in my bones; but the Episcopal Church, La Iglesia Episcopal, is not limited to the music and the prayers I already know. The word “familiar” is closely related to the word “family” – but God’s family is bigger than what is familiar to us, and that is a holy and joyful opportunity.
But celebrating the breadth of our way of faith is not the only reason to weave Posadas into our Advent and Christmas this year. Las Posadas is an embodied reflection on hospitality. There are many issues in our civic life right now that hinge on our readiness to open our hearts to one another. And as Christians we cannot in good conscience separate those civic issues from our faith – because our faith’s teaching on hospitality is overwhelmingly clear. One of the strongest ethical mandates of Scripture is: Treat the stranger, the immigrant, the guest, with care and respect; for your people were once strangers too. I don’t know offhand how many times the Bible says that – but it’s a lot. As Christians – as people formed by Scripture – hospitality, welcome, is one of the fundamental ways we are called to engage the world.
Over the past few months, some members of our parish have shared their stories of immigration – their own, or a parent’s or grandparent’s. Those stories – and our own family stories – remind us that our country is overwhelmingly a nation of immigrants. And many of our immigrant ancestors were unwelcome when they first arrived here. They were seen as wretched refuse – tired, poor, exiles and huddled masses. And yet – we have been tempted to close the golden door behind us. To refuse welcome to today’s immigrants who seek to build lives here, for the betterment of both their children and our common good.
Immigrants today have heard the words of the Posadas song, the ones that go with doors slammed shut: We don’t have room for you. We don’t have enough to share. You might be robbers. Go away. This very month, many groups, including faith groups, are urging Congress to pass the Dream Act, which would grant permanent residency to immigrants brought here illegally as children. Without the Dream Act, people who have lived here since they were two, or four, or seven, people for whom California or North Carolina or Wisconsin is home, face living in shadow, secrecy, and risk.
And all of that, friends, is the second reason we’re trying out the custom of Las Posadas this year. So that we can do something unfamiliar. So that we who are Anglos, in this congregation, can have the immigrant’s experience of wondering if we’re saying the words correctly, if someone’s going to laugh at us. So that we can reflect on how it feels to say, or to hear, Go away! We don’t want you. So that we can remember how it feels to be strangers and outsiders – or notice how it feels, if we’ve never felt it before. So we can be both hosts and guests, and, receiving hospitality, may improve our hospitality, and make us more ready to welcome the holy in the guise of the stranger.