Opening the door to Jesus the Migrant, The Anchor, December 23, 2011

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
December 23, 2011

Today is the last day of the traditional posadas. Celebrated in various Hispanic communities in the Diocese of Fall River, but particularly popular among Latino Catholics in the American Southwest, the posadas extend from December 16 through 23 and re-enact the attempts of the Holy Family to find shelter (“posada” in Spanish) for the birth of Jesus. The posadas were introduced by Franciscan missionaries to the New World in the 16th century in order to help new Christians to be prepared to welcome Christ into their lives at Christmas and beyond. Each night, people depicting the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph — or statues representing them carried in procession, accompanied by many others in costumes — go from house to house begging for a place to stay.

A ritual of singing takes place between those outside the door asking for shelter and those inside. The English translation of the most popular alternating hymn begins with St. Joseph’s knocking and asking, “In the name of Heaven, please give us some shelter, for she cannot walk, my beloved wife.” The reply comes from within, “You are not at an inn, so keep on your way, for I cannot open; you might be a rogue.” The Holy Family responds, “Please show us some mercy; do grant us this favor; for the God of Heaven will be sure to repay you.” Those with closed hearts behind closed doors answer, “You can keep on walking and stop knocking, for if I get angry I will beat you badly.” St. Joseph counters, “We are very tired. I came from Nazareth, Joseph is my name, carpenter by trade.” The householder retorts, “I don’t care for the name: let me go to sleep, because as I told you, I won’t open to you.” After St. Joseph finally identifies his wife as “the Queen of Heaven” and “Mother of the Holy Word,” the owner of the house has a change of heart, confesses “I was not aware,” and bids them enter. Then a true fiesta begins.

The hymn, and the whole posada tradition, helps those who participate to experience not only what it must have been like for Mary and Joseph repeatedly to hear that there was no room to give them shelter, but what are the criteria most ordinary people employ to opening their doors and lives to strangers. The change in the response to the request for posada occurs once those inside recognize that those asking for entry are not just any Jose, Maria and Jesús. They are not petulant possible “rogues,” as the hymn suggest, but the mother and foster-father of God wanting to enter together with the Savior of the world. Everything changes, in other words, once people recognize that the people at the door are not “strangers,” but include God-incarnate.

The posadas are a helpful allegory for the current crisis of illegal immigration in our nation. Many of those who participate in the posadas are involved in a real-life drama of asking for shelter in our country and often find in response closed doors and hearts. In a way evocative of the fridigity of the various residents of ancient Bethlehem who denied shelter to a woman in labor, Americans often respond to undocumented immigrants with dehumanization, labeling them “criminaliens” and ignoring the plights and genuine human needs that lead them to journey far from home, often at great risk, to arrive at our doors. Doubtless, like in the posadas, the response from most would change if the ones asking for welcome were Jesus Christ and the members of the Holy Family. For Christians, however, in a very real way the supplicants are. Jesus told us that we would be judged by how we respond to Him in others: “I was a stranger,” He insisted, and “you welcomed Me” or “you gave Me no welcome” (Mt 25:35, 43). The way we treat the least of His brothers and sisters is, He emphasized, the way we treat Him. For us Catholics, we need to take the lead in the work of comprehensive immigration reform that embraces both justice and law but also Christian hospitality, love and mercy.

On December 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, two different groups of U.S. bishops issued letters that Catholic citizens ought to take to their prayer, living rooms and civic life.

The first was a joint letter by the 33 U.S. bishops of Hispanic origin to illegal immigrants identifying with their struggles and offering comprehensive pastoral care (see page four). They sought to let “those of you who lack proper authorization to live and work in our country know that you are not alone, or forgotten.” They noted that “every human being, authorized or not, is an image of God and therefore possesses infinite value and dignity” and said they have opened “our arms and hearts to you, and we receive you as members of our Catholic family.” After observing that and how they add much to the economic, cultural and spiritual welfare of our country, they added, provocatively, that in their “suffering faces we see the true face of Jesus Christ. We are well aware of the great sacrifice you make for your families’ well-being. Many of you perform the most difficult jobs and receive miserable salaries and no health insurance or social security.

Despite your contributions to the well-being of our country, instead of receiving our thanks, you are often treated as criminals because you have violated current immigration laws.” Some say that those who commit the crime of entering our country illegally are in fact criminals and should be treated as such; at the same time, however, we have to admit that the crime of which they’re guilty is not murder, rape, or drug-trafficking, but essentially trespassing in order to find work and seek the American dream for themselves and their families. While the bishops publicly renewed their commitment to work for changes in U.S. immigration law and in the global economic injustice that often drives people, at great danger, to enter the United States illegally, at the same time they state that as Catholics they cannot defer Christian hospitality until such reforms are made. Making their own St. Paul’s words, “You are no longer aliens or foreign visitors; you are fellow-citizens with the holy people of God and part of God’s household” (Eph 2:19), the bishops reminded them that almost every American is also an immigrant or a descendant of immigrants and that Jesus Himself was a refugee and a migrant. That Heavenly Migrant continues to walk beside all of us as we head to the Father’s house intending to knock and seek eternal posada.

On the same day, the Catholic bishops of Wisconsin wrote to all Catholics in their state on the same pressing topic. They acknowledged that Catholics can in good conscience hold differing views about U.S. immigration policy, but vigorously asserted that “the duty of wealthy nations like ours to welcome foreigners who are searching for a better life” is not incompatible with the “right of governments to regulate immigration for the sake of the common good” or to secure our borders. While emphasizing the importance of obeying laws and stating that they were “deeply troubled” that millions are in the U.S. without legal authorization, they also noted that without immigrant labor “entire economic sectors — service, construction, agriculture — would falter.” With equanimity and clarity they declared that this “tremendous economic pull overwhelms our inadequate immigration system, and our failure to reform the system effectively ensures illegal entry. The U.S. provides only 5,000 permanent and 66,000 temporary visas annually to low-wage workers wishing to enter this country, a total far below the number of workers needed by key sectors of our economy.” Unless we fix the problem of the paucity of visas for legal immigrants, in other words, we’re always going to have a problem with illegal immigration because, among other things, the jobs are still available to draw illegal immigrants here in droves. From a moral perspective as Catholics, they added, “we cannot turn our backs on the 12 million illegal immigrants in our midst who long to live freely and fully” and “who live fearfully in the shadows, who are vulnerable to exploitation, whose family members are being cruelly isolated, detained, and deported.” They urge their fellow Catholics to commit themselves to working with them to resolve the immigration crisis in a comprehensive way, keeping the sanctity and dignity of every person in mind.

Our reflection and celebration of Christmas ought to remind us that we’re all involved in a daily real-life posada, on one side of the door or the other, and that Christ continues to stand at the door and knock (Rev 3:20).