In Mexico and other parts of Latin America—and among many Latino immigrants in the U.S.— Las Posadas is an important part of the celebration of Christmas. Las Posadas is a multi-day rehearsal of Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging as they arrived in Bethlehem, as Mary was about to give birth to Jesus. People wander from house to house seeking posada (lodging) and get turned away repeatedly before eventually finding someone who will welcome them in. Like most good Christmas traditions, food, music, sweets, and communities coming together are all part of the experience.
I love the tradition both because it’s a great way to remind children and others of the true story of Christmas (it’s much closer to the biblical narrative than Santa Claus) and because it speaks to the central role of hospitality—welcoming strangers—in the Christmas story of the Gospels. Throughout the Christmas story, we see people arriving in new places and humbly seeking a welcoming response. Mary and Joseph get turned away in Bethlehem because “there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7), and thus Jesus ultimately is born in a stable and placed in a manger.
Later on in the story, Joseph and Mary have to move again, this time fleeing persecution and escaping to Egypt with Jesus, who was probably a toddler at this point (Matthew 2:13-15). Scripture does not really tell us much at all about their experience in Egypt, begging lots of interesting questions: did they have permission to cross the border? How did they survive the long journey through the desert? What did the Egyptians think of them when they arrived? Did Jesus learn to speak the local language? Did he get made fun of because of an accent? Did the Holy Family make friends in Egypt, or did Egyptians think they were a drain on the economy, or a threat to their national security, or any of the other seemingly universal concerns about immigrants? We don’t really know the answers to these questions, but it is fun to speculate.
In a larger sense, the whole of the gospel is a question of hospitality: how will we receive Jesus? Will we welcome him or keep him out? The Gospel of John’s version of the Christmas narrative—with fewer details of the specific circumstances of Christ’s Incarnation than Matthew’s or Luke’s—puts it this way:
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (John 1:9-12).
Jesus knew, on multiple levels, what it meant to be rejected, rather than welcomed. He was a vulnerable immigrant himself, seeking welcome, and he also personally identifies with others who are vulnerable: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me,” Jesus tells his disciples, because “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:35-36, 40).
We who claim to follow Jesus would do well, at Christmastime and throughout the year, to remember that we never know who the “stranger” who arrives in our country might be: when we welcome her, we may be welcoming our Lord and Savior. And if we dismiss and revile her, we might find ourselves among those who fail to recognize Jesus as he appears to us in what Mother Teresa once called his “distressing disguise.”
I fear that too many of us have forgotten that Jesus was himself a stranger looking for posada, and that Scripture commands us repeatedly to respond to immigrants with welcome and compassion, precisely as (we hope) we would if Jesus himself showed up in our country. To help remind myself, I’ve committed to taking part in the “I Was a Stranger…” Challenge beginning in January, reading one biblical passage each day for forty days that relates to God’s heart for immigrants and committing to prayer for both the immigrants in my community and the legislators whose decisions in the coming months will dramatically impact them. We’re asking individuals, campus groups, and local churches throughout the country to join us in this challenge. Will you join me?
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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