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A Stranger at the Door

Although Las Posadas is a beautiful ritual, the reality it addresses is a painful one: the reality of human need and exclusion.
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Nativity Scene in Mexico

Nativity scene in a house in Mexico.

Photo by José Camba.

On a December evening, children of every age join a procession down 24th Street in San Francisco's Mission District, some with lighted candles in hand and others carrying on their shoulders statues of Mary and Joseph.

At each of a series of stations, an ancient exchange is repeated. Those playing the role of Joseph approach the inn, knock on the door, and say in a loud voice:

En nombre del cielo, buenos moradores, dad a unos viajeros posada esta noche.

In the name of heaven, kind people, give some travelers lodging this evening.

From inside, a chorus of voices responds:

Aqui no es meson; sigan adelante—yo no puedo abrir no sea algun tunante.

This is not an inn; move on—I cannot open lest you be a scoundrel.

As Joseph moves from one inn to the next, the innkeepers grow angry and even threaten violence, while the night grows colder and the young couple's weariness turns to exhaustion. Finally, Joseph even reveals his wife's true identity, begging for posada for just one night for la Reina del Cielo, the Queen of Heaven—to no avail.

For eight days, the scene is re-enacted. Finally, on the ninth day, the eve of Christmas, Joseph's request moves the heart of an innkeeper who offers the young couple all that he has left—a stable. Yet the stable is enhanced by the love with which the innkeeper offers it, and this humble place becomes the birthplace of Jesus.

In an outpouring of joy and festivity, those gathered on the final night celebrate the generosity of the innkeeper and the posada (hospitality) given to Mary and Joseph in song and dance, food and drink. Candy and treats from the piñata shower the children, and the community recalls anew how the stranger at one's door can be God in disguise.

Although Las Posadas is a beautiful ritual, the reality it addresses is a painful one: the reality of human need and exclusion. Many of the Mission District participants were once refugees themselves.

Throughout history, there have been times when people were dislocated, becoming vulnerable as they journeyed far from home. Just as the human need for hospitality is a constant, so, it seems, is the fear of the stranger. The stranger seems to portend danger, the unknown, a challenge to the familiar constructs of our world. The healthy turn away from the gaunt, blemished faces of those living with AIDS. The prosperous avoid poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

Ironically, it is not just hospitality to the “stranger” that is in peril in our society. The elderly are often isolated from the affection and care of their own families, and, in many busy families, children find no after-school welcome home, and spouses find little time to host one another over supper.

Strangers, Guests, and Hosts in the Bible

In the traditions shaped by the Bible, offering hospitality is a moral imperative. The Hebrew Scriptures (called by many Christians the Old Testament) tell of the years of exile and slavery in Egypt, and of a refugee people wandering in a wilderness who are later forced into captivity and exile again.

As a result, their laws require them to deal justly and compassionately with the strangers among them. “You shall also love the stranger,” God instructs the people through Moses, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19).

When it is most fully realized, hospitality not only welcomes strangers, it also recognizes their holiness. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it,” says the Letter to the Hebrews (13:2). The stranger becomes a person dear to and made in the image of God, someone bearing distinctive gifts that only he or she can bring.

In spite of the difficulties and threats encountered on the streets of U.S. neighborhoods, Hispanic families want their children to know how to respond to the needs of the poor, the alien, and the physically challenged. Indeed, this desire undergirds the relatively low rate of homelessness in the Hispanic community. People do take one another in, taught to do so by example and by the annual return of Las Posadas.

Within the biblical story, it is clear that all God's people are spiritually descended from migrants and wanderers, and that all are called to hospitality.


Ana María Pineda, a member of the Sisters of Mercy, is director of the Hispanic Ministries Program at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Excerpted from Practicing Our Faith by Dorothy Bass (1998) by permission of Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint.  www.practicingourfaith.org.

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