Advent is a time of waiting, a longing for Messiah in a special way, looking back to the first coming of Jesus as a baby and forward to the second coming of Christ as King. Seasonal Scripture readings link both “advents,” making Advent a season of paradox. Christians celebrate an already-but-not-yet faith: Christ has come, Christ is coming. We’re saved, we’re being saved. The Kingdom is coming, the Kingdom is here. Indeed, the celebration of Advent is not only “spiritual,” but like the incarnation itself, embodied in physical ways—from liturgy and traditions to acts of charity which incarnate Christ in his Kingdom coming and now.
Thus has Advent birthed representations in images, narratives and rituals. Many are linked to the journey of the Holy Family, looking for lodging and turned away. Celebrants have been known to put a candle in the window, leave a place at the table or the door unlatched for strangers seeking shelter. The custom of Nativity crèches (said to have been invented by St. Francis) is woven into many Advent traditions, sending sculpted figures on a journey around the church or house on their way to the stable, where the crib gets its occupant on Christmas.
A four-hundred year old Mexican Advent tradition began as a teaching tool of European missionaries and as a replacement for pagan religious traditions. Las Posadas, a nine-day celebration, features a caminata (pilgrimage) led by Mary and Joseph, portrayed in pictures or statues or by costumed parishioners—often children and/or accompanied by a figure dressed as an angel. A guide carrying a candle in a paper shade leads the nightly procession from December 16-24. The narrative is carried in songs and responses as the pilgrims seek a posada (inn, lodging) and are turned away by the innkeeper. At the last house, the Holy Family and fellow travelers find welcome and enter to songs, prayers and holiday festivities. The tradition includes particular songs, foods and drinks, and nightly star-shaped piñata.
Details vary, for example, the pilgrims moving from house-to-house or within a single church. The procession may also feature nightly readings. Themes draw on the Gospel—forgiveness, grace, the Divine call vs. human acceptance or rejection. The journey motif resonates across Scripture—through journeys of Abram and the Children of Israel, stories of exile and return, prodigals and homecomings, the original exile from Eden and ultimate arrival in the New Jerusalem. There are echoes in the Festival of Booths, including its emphasis on welcoming strangers. The lesson of Abraham’s hospitality is that strangers may be angels in disguise. Indeed, so much seems to depend on our response to strangers. “I was a stranger,” Jesus declares in that sobering passage of Matthew 25 and “you welcomed me” (v. 35) —or “did not welcome me (v. 43). How we treat “one of the least,” He insists, we “did it to me” (v. 40).
Given this, it is natural and appropriate that Las Posadas observations have embraced expressions of solidarity with migrants, particularly since the procession days pass through December 18, the U.N.-declared International Migrant Day. Readings and testimonies focus on human rights advocacy, as migrants share experiences and cultural performances. Stops along the pilgrimage may include a symbolic “border detention center,” underscoring the Matthew 25 charge concerning visiting (v. 36) or failing to visit (v. 43) those in prison.
Such anchoring of Las Posadas in history invites a range of stories of migrants—Native migrants in North America, the arrival of Europeans, the involuntary migration of African-Americans along with the Great Migration of same out of lands of oppression. (One thinks of doors of segregated inns—and schools, churches, etc.—slamming in non-white faces.) In fact, recent variations of the Posadas tradition have embraced the Black Lives Matter movement. This reflects an instinctive solidarity with those who remain strangers in their own land, and underscores the tragedy of a nation of immigrants and a history of oppression of the Other.
The persistence of such oppression may suggest another thematic turn on the journey of multiple rejections. How many have cried out to God for relief from their oppression only to feel like the door was being slammed in their faces? That puts us on delicate theological ground with—apparently—the occasional casting of God in the role of the unwelcoming innkeeper. Still, a truly convincing actor in the role of unwelcoming innkeeper has also been myself—for I’ve turned away Jesus, in all his Mathew 25 guises, from my door. Then again, if the innkeeper has been me, so, paradoxically, has been “the least” rejected. May all those doors finally be opened. Advent-style faith is clinging to the promise that our knocking will not be in vain (Mt. 7:7).
My own Chicago neighborhood would make an apt setting for a multi-level celebration of Las Posadas. Uptown has been known as a entry port for immigrants, seeing many waves of new arrivals—whites, blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian “boat people,” Sudanese “Lost Boys,” Russian Orthodox and Middle Eastern Muslims, plus young people, not a few runaways, escaping old rejections, subject to new ones. Indeed, the neighborhood is shaped also by rejection of this great diversity of travelers, not least in evictions, gentrifications and loss of affordable housing. Homelessness remains a defining feature, concern, and battleground in Uptown. Posada is also translated “shelter,” and Uptown has many kinds, for the homeless, the mentally ill, for others seeking refuge from an often cold and hostile world.
Perhaps, in Advent’s Both/And mode, there might be fashioned some way to open up to an ecumenical celebration while holding onto the scandalous particularities of the Gospel story. In any case, the primary thrust of Advent remains an opening to those excluded. It may seem impossible, but that straining for the impossible—for a miracle—is the orientation of Advent. (The question of cultural appropriation is obviously of critical importance here, requiring sensitivity and respect for Latin culture in any would-be implementation of Las Posadas.)
The punchline to Wendell Berry’s poem is “Practice resurrection.” In Advent, we do so—yet we might also say “Practice Incarnation”: we wait for it, but practice it now, living Advent’s mystic interpenetration of past, present and future, Word and flesh, us and them, self and other. Remember and embody, role-play in Los Posadas, give hospitality and refuse to do so, be the stranger, welcome the stranger, remember the stranger, meditate on Jesus the stranger.
In this moment of history, amid rising forces of exclusion of strangers and fear of the Other, Christmastime can witness to the incarnation-in-flesh and praxis of the Gospel or it can betray all these, being one more sign-separated-from-signifier, in vaporous holiday consumerism. Embracing Advent traditions of embodied faith can ground a faith that too often drifts from solid symbolic expression and tangible acts of compassion to sentimental religious gas. Advent is a longing for wholeness, and a witness to wholeness present and spreading—if it is truly the Advent of Jesus Christ which is awaited, celebrated, enacted, and so made incarnate.