Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Las Posadas, Part II

Las Posadas began as an attempt by Father Diego de Soria to contrast with the Aztec winter celebrations in Mexico. It quickly spread throughout Mexico, and celebrates the journey of Mary and Joseph, looking for a place to stay in Bethlehem.

I've been pondering the Lukan nativity story lately, and it looks more and more interesting to me, especially in light of the "beam in your eye, splinter in your brother's eye" light of things. There is a "renegade" reading of the Lukan nativity story, one that comes from a scholar who lived much of his life in the Middle East. He insists that the standard reading of the story completely misunderstands the culture of the area. Such inhospitality would be unthinkable; and besides, if Mary and Joseph did come to Bethlehem, family there would put them up (if they were as poor as most of the people, the thought of an inn would never occur to them, if, indeed, such commercial establishments existed at the time. More than likely, they didn't. The economy was very sharply divided between the "haves" (less than 5% or so), and the "have nots." There probably weren't enough people between very rich and poor to keep "inns" in business.)

So where do we get the idea? This scholar said the word translated as "inn" referred to the guest room, not a free-standing building. He also said the "manger" was the feeding trough, a feature of most homes of the time.

Imagine that you are poor, but own a few animals. What you don't own, is land, because land is power, and wealth. But you own animals. Where do you put them at night, if they are so valuable? In the one building you control, of course. Homes had a raised area,a platform just high enough for a feeding trough. The family slept on the platform, which also, because of the height, kept the animals out. The children of such poor families were regularly placed in the trough as a makeshift crib. So what Luke is telling us is not a story of inhospitality, but of peasant hospitality; of a ruler living as the poor lived, fully and completely.

"But at the coming of the king of heaven, all's set at six and seven." Well, it is for us, because we are the rulers, not the peasants. The hospitality that is common among the poor, and practiced widely in the Middle East (the Bible is full of exemplary stories of hospitality, as valued by that culture), is not common among us. There are inns for travelers, other places for them to stay; and if they can't afford it, what business is that of mine? Who are they to me?

And then we attribute that attitude, of which we are justly ashamed (and which we vigorously disavow), to "them."

So Las Posadas is a lovely practice. But it can also remind us of our shortcomings. Perhaps it is no accident that it is not as common a practice in this country, as in Mexico. There are physical problems, of course (I can imagine doing Las Posadas here in Houston; it would take us all night to reach some of the houses of church members, even by car). But is there a cultural one, as well? Would we welcome the stranger so easily? And is there anyone more stranger to us, than the Christ? The One who told us that when we tended to the poor, the sick, the prisoner, we tended to him?

Update: the word Luke uses, katalamati, could mean "inn, but "is perhaps best understood here as lodging...or guest room...." Arnot and Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 2nd edition, 1958, p. 414

No comments:

Post a Comment