And suddenly the star they had seen rising went forward and halted over the place where the child was. The sight of the star filled them with delight, and going into the house they saw the child with his mother Mary, and falling to their knees they did him homage. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. But they were given a warning in a dream not to go back to Herod, and returned to their own country by a different way. —Matthew 2: 9-12 (New Jerusalem Bible)
A few years ago I had the opportunity to spend the Christmas season in rural Guatemala while working as a human rights observer, living with a community of Q’eqchi’ Mayan survivors of state-sponsored genocide. Since that year, I’ve continued to be awestruck by the power of Christmas when I allow myself to be disoriented, to take a few steps off my customary pathway and move towards the Mystery.
Ten days before Christmas I traveled to Guatemala City with men from my rural community in order to meet with lawyers who were supposedly helping the community gain official title to its ancestral land. Juan Luis, Isaac, and Pablo met me in the central park in Santa María on the first night of Las Posadas, nine nights when people carry an icon of Mary around to different houses looking for somewhere for her to stay, annually reliving the “no room at the inn” response that the mother of Jesus received.
After a simple but delicious meal of caldo de kaxlan (literally chicken soup, but, to my Minnesotan tastes, more accurately ‘caldo de chile’) with tortillas, we headed for the ‘hospedaje’ (inn) at the local Catholic parish. Here, for one Quetzal a night (13¢ or 1/15 of a man’s daily wage when he is lucky enough to find work) we slept in a large dormitory on a wooden platform with shared blankets. On the first night of Posadas, I shared a room with my three friends and fifty or so other Q’eqchi’ men, women, and children. There was dignified room at this inn.
The next day, after traversing steep mountain roads for 12 hours in the rain in the crowded back of a deteriorating pickup, we arrived in Guatemala City. As a young white American woman, I had always felt respected in the city. People were eager to help, strike up a conversation, and decipher my beginner Spanish.
When I entered the city with Juan Luis, Isaac, and Pablo, this friendliness melted away and I had a brief, passing glimpse into what it is like for the majority of Guatemala’s citizens. Whenever I went, I was asked whether I knew “those ones,” that is, my friends. Security guards only became at ease when they understood that the three Q’eqchi’ men were with the American woman. Although we gained admittance, service was inevitably slower and patronizing. In Santa María, the villagers and I related to each other as individuals, with our own distinct personalities, strengths, and weaknesses. I knew who laughed the most, who was the best goalie, who I couldn’t trust completely…
Once I entered the capital, my choice of relating to these men as co-workers was constantly challenged and undermined. I became the important “Norteamericana” and they were reduced to being “Indios.” Juan Luis was an amazing teacher, a professional at every level who worked wonders in teaching the children of his community to both value their Q’eqchi’ language and gain fluency in the Spanish so necessary for survival. But, when we met with the lawyers, the focus shifted to me, a young girl who would leave behind the poverty and violence of Guatemala in just a few short months. What did I have to say that shouldn’t have been said by my coworkers? What long-term commitment did I have? What attachment did I have to the land that still hid the massacred remains of the family members of Juan Luis, Isaac, and Pablo? Why couldn’t the lawyers listen to my friends?
My experience traveling with these friends sheds light on the Christmas story for me. What would it mean if Christians took the story of Jesus’ birth seriously? We basically have a teenager conceive a child out of wedlock (with the divinity of the father unknown). She tries to find a room at an hospedaje far from her home and is refused. Why? There is probably physical space. But she is desperately poor, from Nazareth, a place from which “nothing good can come.” She is a member of a marginalized ethnic group under a corrupt ruler doing the bidding of a superpower that prioritizes financial profit and “national security” over the basic needs and dignity of the people in its sphere of influence. In other words, Mary the Mother of God comes from a place remarkably like Santa María, Guatemala.
Today in Santa María anyone has a place at the parish inn. Each year, when I think of the Christ Child, I think of the wonderful little babies in Santa María, those that are healthy, those that are malnourished, and those that have been buried in the ground because of this malnourishment. I think of the mothers who sacrifice everything for their children, but are still refused room in their society. I ask how I, how we, can open up our world to abundant life for all.
Our Catholic liturgical year cycles through desolation and joy. The end of the Christmas season, Epiphany, tells the story of a few men—wise, rich, and respected in the eyes of the world—who were part of the very first generation that would call this poor teenager “blessed.” How can we also let ourselves be disoriented by this teenager and her infant son?