By Fr. Jack Podsiadlo, SJ
For the seventh year in a row, Sacred Heart Parishioners celebrated the nine evenings before Christmas accompanying Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem and needing to find lodging for the night. Each evening, in trailer parks, apartment complexes and family homes, in eight different neighborhoods throughout Richmond, they gathered for this traditional Mexican and Central American celebration of Posada (seeking lodging). A group of “pilgrims” accompanied by guitarists, singers, lots of children, and a Manger scene without the baby Jesus, approach the designated host home, the inn, singing and lighting their way with candles.
Arriving at the front door, the “pilgrims” sing,
In heaven’s name I beg lodging. My pregnant wife can’t go any further.
The folks inside respond:
This isn’t a hotel, keep on moving. We can’t open the door to you.
The pilgrims continue:
We’ve come, exhausted, all the way from Nazareth. I’m a carpenter named Joseph.
And those inside reply:
I don’t care what your name is. Let me sleep. I told you, I’m not opening up the door.
The pilgrims insist:
My wife is Mary, Queen of Heaven. She’s going to be the mother of the Divine Word.
Finally, realizing who’s outside, those inside respond:
So you’re Joseph and your wife Mary? Come in. I didn’t recognize you.
Everyone joins in as the pilgrims pile into the home:
Enter, blessed pilgrims. Come into this little space. Although it’s a poor lodging, I offer it to you with all my heart. Let us sing with joy, with joy. Let everyone understand that Jesus, Joseph and Mary have come to bless our home.
Inside, the coordinator introduces the evening’s theme, like LISTEN, ACCEPT, BE GRATEFUL, and a scripture passage is read. Participants are asked to share with their neighbor what the reading says to them. Next, a few share their conversations with the whole gathering, and their comments are noted for inclusion in the evening’s prayer intentions. The rosary follows with more singing and finally all are offered tamales, pan dulce, chocolate and other traditional Posada fare. Children receive special gifts and sometimes there’s a piñata.
On Christmas Eve, one communal Posada took place at Sacred Heart Church, followed by a Pastorela, another centuries old Mexican and Central American tradition - a play that recreates the biblical passage where the shepherds follow the Star of Bethlehem to find the Christ Child but on the way are accosted by the Seven Deadly Sins that try to keep the shepherds from reaching their goal. Adults and children alike laugh and shout encouragement to the shepherds as they battled the evil forces. Then in hushed wonder they watched as the living Nativity unfold before them. Three Christmas masses: one bilingual, a second in Spanish and a third in English rounded off the evening celebrations. Two more masses followed on Christmas Day.
Pope Francis certainly had many of Sacred Heart’s parishioners in mind as he delivered his Midnight Mass homily and his noon-time Urbi et Orbi message this year. He focused on refugees and migrants, drawing a parallel between their struggles and those of the Holy Family seeking lodging but finding that “there was no room for them in the inn.” Pope Francis insisted: “Jesus comes to give all of us our document of Citizenship.” He continued: “We see the tracks of millions of persons who do not choose to go away but, driven from their land, leave behind their dear ones.” He added, “For many others this departure can only have one name: survival.” During his Urbi et Orbi message, Francis reminded the world that “the commemoration of Christ’s birth is an occasion to remember and pray for every child who suffers due to war, poverty and inequality, each of whom bears the face of Jesus.”
So many of Sacred Heart’s parishioners are undocumented with U.S. born children fearful of deportation, recipients of TPS (Temporary Protective Status) which is on the verge of being rescinded, or DOCA recipients whose future is in the hands of Washington. They see themselves in the events they celebrate in the Posadas. Their only hope is in a loving, merciful God, Father of all and the words and actions of Pope Francis who invites all Christians to imitate him in reaching out to embrace the vulnerable and all those who are suffering.