The Posadas: An invitation to hospitality

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Growing up in Guatemala, I knew that Christmas was coming when across the country Christian communities started celebrating the traditional Posadas. The word posada means, inn, shelter, or to offer shelter. In the Latin American Christian tradition, a Posada is a reenactment of the Holy Family’s, Mary and Joseph, seeking lodging on their way to Bethlehem – during Mary’s pregnancy, expecting Jesus. During the 9 days before Christmas, the towns’ streets and cities in Latin America celebrate this ritual of hospitality. Homes are selected in the community to be the stops where Mary and Joseph will stop and ask for Posada. In Guatemala, turtle shells are used by some members of the procession as instruments that interpret a knock-on-the-door kind of sound – announcing that the Holy Family is in search of a Posada. People in the community divide in two groups; one goes inside the hosting home, behind closed doors, and the other stays outside, with statues of a pregnant Virgin Mary and Joseph. The group interacts through songs. The group in the outside sings a song asking if there is room at the inn, the group inside replies with a song saying “there is no room at the inn.”  Joseph’s plea for compassion and hospitality comes through a song that lets those behind the door know that his wife is pregnant, tired and can’t walk any further.  The conversation through song continues until hospitality is extended, the doors are opened, and inside the home both groups celebrate the hospitality offered to the “Holy Pilgrims” – the whole community enjoys the hospitality of the home and a meal is served, with traditional foods and drinks.

In antiquity, the belief that the Divine would visit mortals in a disguised form, as a beggar or a person in need, informed the practice of hospitality. There are several examples of this in the Bible, but perhaps one Scriptural verse that is clear about this belief and only makes sense through this belief is Hebrews 13:2; where it makes reference to people offering hospitality to strangers, without knowing that the strangers were angels. Imagine living in a culture that believed that anyone asking for shelter and refuge could be God. How would that change the way we treat strangers, beggars, and homeless people?

The teaching that God or angels can come visit us and knock at our doors in the form of a stranger is no longer a teaching that we contemplate today. In our society today, we are constantly encouraged to suspect everyone, especially strangers and foreigners – people who are different from us in language, clothing, skin color, culture, religion, and many other differences. However, we must also emphasize the innumerable stories of encounters with strangers that touch our lives in positive ways – stories of hospitality, care, compassion, kindness, and human generosity. In the Scriptures we are advised, even warned, that God will come at times through strangers and that our response to them has pivotal implications for our relationship with God. In Matthew 25:44 we find that those who did not welcome others ask “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?”

Now, we should not be moved to welcome others based on fear that we will be punished. Instead, in the hope that opening the door to strangers will bring new life, and even salvation. When Mary and Joseph were looking for a posada, the family who offered hospitality was not aware of who Joseph, Mary and the baby in her womb were. It was God, knocking at the door of humanity, to bring Good News. Today, as we find new pilgrims knocking at our doors, mothers and fathers with children walking hundreds of miles, like Mary and Joseph, lining up at our borders seeking posada, coming into our communities tired from their hard journeys, it is crucial to return to the biblical teaching of hospitality, to open our doors, to be faithful to God’s call to welcome strangers and offer a place at the posada.

Saulo Padilla
Immigration Education National Program
Mennonite Central Committee U.S.

Photo: In the town of San Miguel, Guatemala, members of the local Catholic church participate in a Posada (posada means “inn” in English). Each night people go to different households in the community to sing and greet one another until Christmas day when Christ’s birth is celebrated. This posada began at the church and the people walked and sang with candles to the local school where a reflection was held about peace. (MCC Photo/Melissa Engle)