Preached on Christmas Eve 2017 at ICCM
Merry Christmas! I am so glad to see each and every one of you here for worship as we celebrate the birth of Jesus. In this gathering we share a few things in common: First, this is not our native land—we come, originally, from somewhere else. We gather as extranjeros—outlanders, foreigners, travelers, in Mexico. Secondly, we gather to celebrate the coming of the Christ, a baby born while his parents were traveling too. We form a special community this night, this gathering is a shelter of sorts, home in a way. Tonight, we hear the familiar songs and scriptures. We will light the candles and remember what this night is all about.
I’ve gotten a couple calls these past few weeks from my son, my eldest child. Peter and his wife, Kayse, bought their first home last November. He called a few weeks ago to tell me their excursion to purchase their first Christmas tree and his memories of hunting for the perfect tree back in Duluth, MN where we lived when he was growing up. He recalled, with typical nostalgia, tromping through the snow and finding exquisite trees with his little sister and with me and his dad. He couldn’t believe how expensive a live-cut tree is! The second call I got was for our family’s traditional recipes. He’s a great cook and has embraced the role of carrying on the family traditions. I will admit that I wiped away a few tears as our call ended. I miss my family on Christmas.
I miss the idea of snow and a white Christmas, with the beauty of lights shining on the sparkling white landscape. I miss lefse. I miss getting Christmas Cards and letters in the mail. But I don’t miss the commercialization of Christmas. I don’t miss the Santas at the mall, and everywhere else. I’m guessing there are things that many of you are missing this night. But, experiencing Christmas in a new cultural context can be refreshing. It’s almost like pressing a reset button on the season.
This year Steve and I were invited by some friends from this congregation to a traditional Mexican posada. Our friends have been spending winters here for 20 some years. They’ve become close to a Mexican family and in true Mexican style, they invited us and about a dozen others to join them in the event. You may know how it works: the extended family and friends walk a pre-arranged path through the neighborhood, going house to house, singing the Canto Para Pedir Posada, the song to ask for shelter. The posada is a 400-year-old tradition that originated in the days of the Spanish conquest.
At each stop the pilgrims, carrying a table with the Mary and Joseph on it, sing to the residents inside the house. They sing: In the name of heaven I ask you for shelter, for my beloved wife can go no further. And the people inside respond singing: This is not an inn, get on with you, I cannot open the door, you might be a rouge. The song goes on for five more verses of question and response until finally the door is opened, the pilgrims are welcomed with the final verse: Enter holy pilgrims, pilgrims, receive this corner, of not this poor dwelling but my heart. Tonight is for joy, for pleasure and rejoicing, for tonight we will give lodging to the Mother of God the Son.
Inside, the household was decorated to the nines! Their Christmas tree was fully lit and dressed, but underneath the tree were not piles of presents. No, under that tree was the most elaborate nativity scene ever. There were animals of every kind—all creation was gathered to praise the child in the manger. The dining room table was laden with cakes—I mean CAKES! Maybe a dozen decorated cakes.
Outside, tables filled the street which was closed off to motor traffic. LOUD music blasted from great big speakers. The host family circulated with pitchers of hot ponche, a hot cider like drink sweetened with piloncillo, with chunks of fresh sugar cane and tejocotes, the fruit of the hawthorne tree, something like a crab apple or an apricot, with a history that goes back to the Aztecs. Following right behind the pitcher of ponche, came another host with tequila for those who wanted it. Food, games, the cakes came next and finally the breaking of the piñatas.
Piñatas have become a party game around the world. But its history goes back to 1586 when the Augustinian friars who started the posada tradition used a piñata as an allegory to help them evangelize the native people of the region and teach them about Christianity. Although you can find a piñata in just about any shape nowadays, the original piñata was a star with seven points, representing the seven deadly sins. The bright colors symbolize temptation to sin. The blindfold represents faith and the stick is the will to overcome sin. The candies and other goodies inside the piñata are the riches of the kingdom of heaven.
Those original meanings of the posada and piñata are layered over with the Mexican tradition of sharing, celebrating, and creating community. I love that seeking shelter and being welcomed into a community feast form the center of this rich Mexican tradition. As foreigners here, I’m sure we’ve all encountered that generous spirit, the Bien Venidos extended to us in so many ways. What a great cultural pattern. It zeroes in on the resonant aspects of the Christmas story for the people of Mexico, hospitality, that even in humble dwellings joy and community are for sharing.
If this was just a story about an innkeeper who missed a chance to open the doors to Mary and Joseph over 2000 years ago, I wouldn’t be telling it tonight. But this isn’t about what an innkeeper did 2000 years ago. It’s about what God did, and what God still does. And it’s about what we do next. Christ still comes into this world. Christmas still happens. It didn’t just happen once, it happens all the time.
Sometimes God knocks at our doors and we are asked if there is room in the inn. And sometimes we look out and we don’t really like what we see, or our fears keep us locked inside and we close the door and say “there’s no place for you here”. But sometimes even when we don’t really want to, even when we’re not sure we want to open that door up, we do so anyway. And that matters.
Christmas grew out of the story that we read about Mary and Joseph and the baby and the manger and no room at the inn. But Christmas is so much more than just an event that happened centuries ago. Christmas invites us to open the door of our lives to what God is trying to do in and through us in this world. It is about daring to make room, not just in our homes, but in our hearts, for joy, for pleasure and rejoicing–even if we don’t know what it means yet to welcome Christ, even if we don’t know where it might lead us.
As I said, I am so glad that each and every one of you is here tonight. It shows that you want to be a part of love made real, of God being active in our world, of a world that can change. Some part of you wants to be a part of the Christmas story.
The church denomination that I am a part of has a saying that I’ve always liked. We say, “God is still speaking.” I believe that. I believe that God is not only still speaking, but God is still active in this world, and God is still writing the Christmas story. God is still writing the story of what happened when Christ came into this world, his parents seeking shelter, and what happened next. And we can be a part of that story. The question is, do we want to be the posada that closed its doors. Or do we want to be part of the celebration.
Scripture tells us that out in the fields, the shepherds heard the baby had been born. And they got up and they came to the manger and saw the new thing that God had just done in the world. That’s who I want to be on Christmas Eve, and everyday. I want to be the one who doesn’t close the doors to my heart when God is about to do something new, but the one who hears about it, and comes running. When God works in this world, I want to be a part of that story. I can be. And so can you. And so can we all.
It’s sometimes easy to forget that that baby born that night grew up to become an adult. And when he did, and he was asked what God asked us to do, he answered this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself. In other words, open the door, open your heart, and let it all in. If Christmas is about the incarnation of God, and this is what God incarnate saw fit to tell us, then this is the ultimate Christmas message.
When the piñata confetti is swept away, when Christmas dinner has been eaten, when the nativity sets go back into their boxes, these things remain. And the ultimate test of how well we have celebrated Christmas this year will not be in what was under the tree or anything like that. It will be in how well we opened our hearts, and let that Christmas message in. May we do so this Christmas, and always. Amen.