December President’s Pen: Becoming a light for others

The quick walk over from the old rectory to the school was a bit cold with the sky already completely dark at 5:45pm. When entering our cafe-gym-a-chapa-torium on the second floor of the main school building, things changed completely. The one big room on campus was warm and festive; dozens of folding chairs were set up for a show. Across from the seats and a wide center space stood three mock doorways decorated with paper flowers and Christmas lights. Off to the side, some seniors were ensconced in the crowded Campus Ministry room getting their costumes ready and coordinating last minute arrangements. You could hear their excited twittering rise and fall among the gathering swell of voices in the main area. Families were arriving carrying large pots and bags of food. A massive piñata hung at its peril from the ceiling in the middle of the room no doubt filled with Mexican dulces. Some younger guests, likely siblings of our students (and possibly future CRSM students themselves), eyed the giant, spikey, papier-mâché orb with a mix of predatory anticipation and barely contained glee – its end was obvious. The buzz in the room intensified as more and more people arrived… teachers, students, grandparents, parents, cousins, friends, and a group from St. Viator High School. In twenty minutes, the nearly empty space became a full house.

Lights dimmed and the program began. Students introduced each segment, explaining the meaning and traditions of Las Posadas. We began with a rosary for Los Misterios Dolorosos, the Sorrowful Mysteries of Jesus’ passion and crucifixion: those prayers and Gospel readings imparting a serious counterpoint to the colorful décor. Then things changed dramatically. Candles were distributed and lit as Jesus and Mary appeared with an assorted entourage of students dressed as barnyard animals, angels, and peasants all singing a playful song about going to Bethlehem by donkey. As they approach the first door, the audience joins the troupe in procession singing the traditional call-and–response song. They ask for lodging but there is no room at the inn; arriving at the second door, the same retort. Finally, at the third door, after initially being denied, recognition! Is that you, Joseph? Is that you, Mary? The door opens and the Holy Family is ushered in. Not just the Holy Family but the entire audience follows them through the door into the welcome place. The Innkeeper sings, “Enter, holy pilgrims, receive this little corner that although it is a poor spot, I give it to you from my heart.”

I must confess that walking through that door, singing by candlelight with so many members of our little school community, looking into the faces of students and their family members was grace. I felt goose bumps. In that moment, it was clear God was with us.

This seemingly insignificant act revealed something much more profound. Our families know very well what it is like to have doors shut in their faces while looking for a better life for their children. Our students understand that, statistically, universities and colleges have disproportionately lower numbers of minorities than the general population. No room at the inn can mean insufficient financial aid packages or failing public high schools where less than half the young people graduate. In our culture, the rich get richer and the poor be damned.

Innkeepers are the “haves” anywhere and Mary and Joseph are the “have-nots” everywhere. The reconciliation of these two groups is life giving and salvific. We all have something to offer and we all are in need of something that only others can provide.

The celebration of Christmas is the celebration that we are loved and that we have the capacity (and responsibility) to love in return. We are loved so much that God became one of us. God made himself completely vulnerable; the first became last and the last became first. The Nativity is, perhaps, the ultimate act of empathy – the absolute Authority seeking to understand rather than be understood – God becoming human and eventually dying that we all might live. We are all strangers on a journey looking for comfort and safety. We are anxious and desperate until we find it. We celebrate with great relief and joy being welcomed and recognized by others. Their act of humanity and our response should inspire empathy in us to make others welcome when we have the power do to so.

We are also all innkeepers leading busy lives that sometimes make it seem impossible to stop and recognize who is knocking at our door. We all have gifts to offer. They may be modest, only a poor spot, but if we give them to others from the heart then miracles are possible. God can enter into our lives. This Christmas, let’s make some room for a stranger. Let’s not ignore those in need for we are all in need in some way. As Pope Francis tweeted recently, “Every stranger that knocks at our door is an opportunity to meet Jesus Christ.”

I know what happens when we make the effort… It is a bit like the end of our Posadas evening. Children are laughing. The piñata opens and is raining sweetness everywhere. The meal of our own making is ready and we all sit down to eat together.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” May you be the light for someone this Christmas season. May you open your door in welcome. You never know who might walk in!