Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The God-Child Has Come

In traditional Mexican Christmas celebrations, at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve, everyone stops in their tracks, embrace each other, and say “The God-Child has come.” At this moment, the baby Jesus is placed in the manger for the first time in their elaborate nativity scenes; nativity scenes that have been prominently displayed since the beginning of Advent. The air is filled with expectancy as the children anxiously await this moment. Each child hopes that they will be the one selected to bring God into the world, to “make his dwelling among us.”

In many US American homes on Christmas Eve, children anxiously await the arrival of  Santa Claus. They can barely sleep from the excitement. They are told that a magical man will somehow miraculously appear in every home on earth, and if they have been good they will be given lots of presents. This man comes in a sleigh pulled by reindeer that can fly through the night. This scene is enacted not only in secular homes, but in many Christian ones as well.

For me, I much prefer the Mexican celebration to the US American one. The emphasis is on the true meaning of Christmas, the arrival of Emmanuel, “God with us.” In US American homes, the emphasis is too often on the self and “what I am going to get.” Perhaps that really reveals the true meaning of Christmas in our culture—consumerism and acquisitiveness.

I can understand secular post-Christian culture including Santa Claus in Christmas, but I have never been able to understand the need for Christians to do the same. Yes, I understand the wonder and the awe and the mystical and the magical that he may represent. But the wonder and the awe that I have seen in Mexican children’s eyes awaiting the arrival of the God-Child was every bit if not more magical than any fat bearded man who shook like a bowlful of jelly.

“The God-Child has come.” May we open our homes and homes for his indwelling.   

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Little Girl's Christmas in Mexico

(The little girl is my daughter)

Melinda felt funny in her tummy.  Today was the day she had been talking about with all her little friends for a long time.  They were to have their “Posada” at kindergarten!

A Posada is a Mexican Christmas custom.  It is a celebration of the birth of Jesus.  Everyone tries to re-enact the events of Christmas day!  First there is “la virgen.”  Every little girl wants to play the part of Mary.  She gets to put on a beautiful long white dress that looked a lot like a dress for a bride at a wedding.  Then she rides on top of a donkey through the streets being pulled by Joseph.  Behind them come all the little shepherds and shepherdesses dressed in colorful costumes, dancing and singing in praise to the newborn king!

Melinda wasn’t going to be Mary.  Even though she secretly wanted to, she would never admit it to her Mommy and Daddy!  Actually, she couldn’t be Mary.  The honor went to a girl from the third year of kindergarten, and she was only in the second year.  Usually the honor was given to one of the daughters of the rich families in town.  Every other little girl was jealous of the one who was chosen, but they all knew that there could only be one Mary!

On the other hand, none of the little boys really wanted to be Joseph!  Even though he could lead the donkey, and all the parents of the children ran excitedly back and forth to take exactly the right picture of the procession, who wanted to be Joseph, anyway, when all the attention centered on Mary?

Melinda had been waiting for this day all week.  Yet she was scared.  She could hardly wait to put on the little shepherdess’ dress which she borrowed from the girl next door.  Yet she remembered all the excitement of the first dance lesson and what had happened to her.  Would the same thing happen now?  Could she remember all the Christmas songs (villansicos) she learned to sing?

Alexandra came over to see if Melinda was ready.  She was dressed in a traditional shepherd’s costume that dated back many, many years to traditions brought to Mexico from Spain.

Now it was time to go.  Mommy, Daddy, Melinda, Matthew and Alexandra all got into the VW bus to head for the school.  At the school there was excitement in the air.  The children tried their tambourines.

The excitement soon turned to restlessness, as the expected donkey did not arrive on time.  Everyone anxiously looked to see if the next person coming around the street corner was leading the donkey for the Posada.

After about an hour wait, the donkey arrived.  Now there was a flurry of activity, as they tried to place the little girl on the donkey, holding a baby doll that was to represent the baby Jesus.  A police car arrived to provide an escort.  Parents lined the streets on either side as the children lined up in pairs behind the blessed couple.  Soon they were on their way.  The children, assisted by their teachers, began singing the traditional songs of the shepherds.

The procession turned the corner unto Federico del Toro, a main street.  It went right past the St. Peter’s church, whose spiral cut an ivory colored slice out of the bright blue sky.

People came out of the stores to watch the parade.  Cars that generally were in a hurry to complete their business downtown, had to wait until the slowly moving procession went past.  Several old men on the sidewalk stopped, and reverently tipped their broad rimmed “sombreros” as the holy couple went by.  Everyone was smiling.

Melinda forgot all about her tummy ache.  She knew every word of every song they sang.  She felt happy to know that her whole family came to her Posada.  Mommy held little Matthew while Daddy took pictures of the parade from every angle.

The procession ended up at the Ramírez house.  It was a typical Spanish-style colonial home, with an open courtyard in the middle, where beautiful poinsettia were blooming.  Around the courtyard, on the veranda, chairs were set up for the parents to sit and eat and visit.  Many parents were already waiting for the procession when it arrived.  there was a big cheer for Mary and Joseph.  Their part and the donkey’s part were done.  Now came the festivities.

Many women had prepared huge tubs of “tamales” and “atole.”  Both of these are traditional Christmas foods and go back to the time of the Indians.  Both are made with corn, which is the staple in the diet of most Mexicans.  The tamales are made with a handful of corn mush, wrapped in husks of an ear of corn.  There is either a spicy meat sauce in the middle, or something sweet.  The atole is a hot drink that is traditionally made from corn.

While the parents ate and drank their traditional food, the children sat together and continued to entertain with Christmas songs.  Then came the event all the children were waiting for.  The breaking of the “piñata.”  Melinda loved this as much as all the other children, but she was always too bashful to try her luck at hitting it.

Today the piñata was made in the shape of the donkey-- just like the donkey that Mary rode on!  It was hung on a rope that was suspended between the two sides of the courtyard.  Melinda stood at the back of the group of children.  How she wanted to try to hit that donkey!  But there were just too many people watching, and that made her nervous.  Anyway, she knew that if the earthen bowl inside the donkey that was filled with candy would break, there would be such a stampede of children that she was afraid she would be crushed!

“Güerita,” they called to Melinda, offering her the stick.  Melinda just could not bring herself to do it.  Melinda’s Daddy came to her and tried to get her to hit the piñata with the stick.  She was sure she didn’t want to do it.

Suddenly the clay bowl broke.  Candy and children flew everywhere.  Melinda did not budge from her spot, even though she wanted to participate.  It just looked too rough for her.  Many of the older boys dove in first, and she was scared of them.  It seemed that the parents didn’t care if the big boys hogged all the candy for themselves.  Melinda didn’t want any part of that.  She secretly wished that just once they’d have a piñata just for girls!  Maybe then she would help.

Luckily, the teachers never put all the candy into the piñata.  They always had bags hidden that were full of treats.  After the dust settled, they would see to it that all the children had some candy, even the shy ones like Melinda.

It was over all to soon for Melinda.  They were in the VW bus once again going back through the city to their home.  She and Alexandra slumped together in the back seat.  All the excitement had made them tired.  They had fallen asleep.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Mary’s Song and the Pope’s Message

46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46-55 NRSV)

Pope Francis’ Peace Message December 12, 2013 from the Toronto Sun Times:

Pope Francis attacked mega-salaries and big bonuses on Thursday, saying in the first peace message of his pontificate that they are symptoms of an economy based on greed and inequality.
In his message for the Roman Catholic Church's World Day of Peace, marked by the Church around the world on Jan. 1, he also called for more sharing of wealth among people and nations to narrow the gap between the rich and poor.
"The grave financial and economic crises of the present time ... have pushed man to seek satisfaction, happiness and security in consumption and earnings out of all proportion to the principles of a sound economy," he said.
"The succession of economic crises should lead too a timely rethinking of our models of economic development and to a change in lifestyles," he said.
Francis, who was named Time magazine's Person of the Year on Wednesday, has urged his own Church to be more fair, frugal and less pompous and to be closer to the poor and suffering.
His message will be sent to national leaders, international organisations such as the United Nations, and NGO's.
Titled "Fraternity, the Foundation and Pathway to Peace", the message also attacked injustice, human trafficking, organised crime and the weapons trade as obstacles to peace.
The new pope's style is characterised by frugality. He shunned the spacious papal apartment in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace to live in a small suite in a Vatican guest house, and he prefers a Ford Focus to the traditional pope's Mercedes.
A champion of the downtrodden, he visited the island of Lampedusa in southern Italy in July to pay tribute to hundreds of migrants who had died crossing the sea from North Africa.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Watch Your Possessiveness: A Cross-cultural Lesson on Private Property

I lived in La Ceiba, Honduras a number of times. During one of my stays, the first full-time Honduran voluntary service worker (VS), Julio Pineda, joined our VS team. We lived in the same room that I had earlier helped to build in the basement of the VS house. We did a lot of things together. I remember riding around town with him on the VS motorcycle, dropping in at a local dive to drink cokes and talk about life. I also remember him being one of the biggest fans of softball; several of us VS boys were on local teams.

I had two watches during that time, wearing the one I favored, and leaving the other one behind on the dresser of our room. One day I noticed that Julio was wearing the watch I had left on the dresser. I was more than a little irked. By now I was fairly well-schooled in the language and the culture, so I knew that I should not accuse him directly of stealing—what I would have done in my home culture. I had to give him a way out; that is to say, a way to save face. I stewed on this for some time until I finally came up with an idea. When we were in an appropriate environment, I said to him, “that’s a really cool watch you are wearing, did you buy that here in La Ceiba or somewhere else?” I thought I was giving him a way out to say his mother bought it in San Pedro Sula and gave it to him for his birthday, or something else. “I didn’t buy it,” he replied without batting an eye. “It’s yours.” Now I was totally floored. He was openly admitting to what my culture would consider stealing.

I do not remember much else of the conversation between us, but this little incident caused me to reflect a lot on the differences between the two cultures on private property. I learned that in Honduras, what’s yours is mine. If we share the same living space, we share the same possessions. I had to admit that God had a little lesson in this incident for me. Perhaps Julio was helping me be a better steward of my possessions. I normally would not wear two watches at the same time, so one was being unproductive. Having two watches was wasteful. Julio was helping me to be more faithful with the things I own.