Sections of the border wall between San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Mexico, have been turned into colorful murals.
Away from the manger they ran for their lives
The crying boy Jesus, a son they must hide
A dream came to Joseph, they fled in the night
And they ran and they ran and they ran
– Liz Vice, “Refugee King” (featuring Hannah Glavor)
Liz Vice’s “Refugee King” depicts a different kind of live nativity scene than the one I remember from my childhood. Those stationary, “gentle lowing” sets often evoke familiar, cozy feelings in me. But I’ve increasingly found that response ironic, even disturbing, when this season’s deepest meaning is found in God’s arrival into the inglorious mess. The tradition of Las Posadas provokes me to consider this context during Advent. And the more I learn to not isolate Jesus’ birth from its distressful surroundings, the better I am able to understand how to welcome it today.
Las Posadas, originally a Mexican Catholic tradition, re-enacts Mary and Joseph’s arduous search for lodging (posada) in Bethlehem. Now practiced throughout the Americas by Catholics and Protestants alike, the celebration starts with two people dressed up as Mary and Joseph leading a group of pilgrims through a predetermined route. Meanwhile, a second group waits at various stops or homes—“inns.” When the procession arrives at a stop, it knocks and sings a request for shelter. Upon the inevitable sung denial, the group continues walking and exchanging the call-and-response song until the final stop, when the pilgrims are granted entry and everyone gathers for reflection, food, and other festivities. A posada can take place one time or every day between December 16 and 24.
I’ve only been able to participate in a posada once, but it immediately helped me recognize the thread of migration throughout this sacred story. I imagine Mary and Joseph weary and determined, crossing territories, full only of uncertainty. I witness the disdainful peeks from windows at the new arrivals. The hundreds-year-old verses sung by those inside the inn during a posada showcase eerily familiar responses—suspicion, compassion fatigue, anger. Repeatedly, they insist, “I will not open the door lest you be some villain… please go somewhere else and leave me be… I care not for your name, I am exhausted.”
Soon afterwards, the Holy Family will flee the spectre of death, navigating an unknown country. When they return, they will occupy what author Karen González describes as liminality—the in-between space—of belonging and not belonging. Immigrants and their children know this space to be both fraught with angst and a source of resilience, even celebration. Fittingly, as González reminds us, Christians are called to occupy this same space: “You’re supposed to live in this empire, but you’re not supposed to belong to it. This is the gift of the immigrant to the church.”
Recognizing the power of Las Posadas, organizers in the United States and Mexico have long used them as opportunities to reflect on the dignity of immigrants. For twenty-five years, Posadas sin Fronteras/Posadas without Borders has organized simultaneous observations on each side of the San Diego-Tijuana border, a point that tens of thousands cross daily for school and work and where asylum seekers wait to be heard. The groups gather to light candles, pray, and pass food through the thick steel slats of the border wall. Together, they call aloud the names of migrants who died on the journey. Those on the Mexican side of the border sing the request while those on the U.S. side respond with rejection, a miniature drama of national proceedings.
The stark dividing wall they face makes their final action ever more poetic and radically hopeful. Together, they sing the closing refrain:
Enter, holy pilgrims,
receive this corner,
for though this dwelling is humble,
I offer it with all my heart.
Let us sing with joy,
all bearing in mind
that Jesus, Joseph, and Mary
honor us by having come.
Music floats above and through the wall. The buoyed welcome is even more beautiful for its recognition that those in the inn receive a holy gift in the presence of visitors.
While I don’t know what posadas will look like this year, stories of the ways people are offering shelter abound. Churches and individuals alike took in protesters for racial justice overnight during curfews. Hurricane survivors in Central America searched for families left homeless by the devastating storms and brought them to their homes. Mutual aid funds share clothes and bags of produce in joint hospitality. In the midst of decrees and executive orders, our offers of shelter reveal where we believe God is present.
As I continue to learn from this moving tradition, I’ll be participating in a virtual series of Las Posadas that will bring together music and art to reflect on migration. If you decide to participate in a posada this December, may it be a space to hold our individual and collective inglorious mess as we prepare the way for the Refugee King.
Comfort Sampong’s heart is sparked by fried plantains, tropical foliage and the stories of women thriving and creating a way out of no way. She graduated in 2018 with majors in economics and international development. Now she lives in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where she works on English communications for the Association for a More Just Society, a Honduran non-profit fighting for justice and peace.