Advent is all about waiting. Ask any children on the street what we’re waiting for during this Advent season, and they will likely answer, “Baby Jesus.” But that’s only part of the story. The word advent comes from the Latin adventus (coming), which is a translation of the Greek Parousia, a word that refers to the Second Coming of Christ. Advent is about waiting as generations of Hebrews waited for the coming of the Messiah. It is about waiting for Christ’s return. And it is about seeking Christ in the everyday circumstances of our lives.
It took several hundred years for the season of Advent to become what we know today. In Spain and Gaul (France) Advent began as a 40-day fast leading up to the celebration of the Nativity on Jan. 6. The focus of the fast was to prepare for the Second Coming of Christ, not his birth. In Rome, the church focused on fasting and penance during the secular celebration of Saturnalia, which took place from Dec. 17-23 — days that have come to be associated with the O Antiphons. This was a direct attempt to counterbalance the wild excesses of the pagan festival. But after the church placed Christmas on Dec. 25, the four-week season of Advent shifted its focus. By the end of the sixth century, it had become a time of joyful anticipation of Christ’s birth, with its penitential aspects taking a back seat.
In Latino countries, Advent has always been associated with Mary and Joseph’s imposed pilgrimage from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Advent seen this way has always entailed a “waiting in action.” Mary and Joseph actively looking for not only posada (shelter) but especially looking for safety, warmth, a space they could claim as their own, a kind heart, a welcoming smile, a friendly face that would readily invite them to “lay their heads and rest a bit,”(Mt 8, 20 ). Have you ever wondered what you would do if or when this Holy Family were to knock on our doors today? Have you ever thought what your answer would be to their request for shelter? Mary pregnant with our Savior sitting on a donkey with Joseph carefully leading the way on foot. Both quietly hoping and praying for a positive response. Both simply waiting for the word to be uttered by us.
Posadas, a Spanish word for “lodging or accommodation,” is a yearly tradition for many Latin American countries initiated in San Agustín, Mexico, by Fray Diego de Soria in 1587. Posadas takes place from Dec. 16-24 in honor of the nine months Mary carried Jesus in her womb. Posadas, a waiting in action, symbolizes the trials which Mary and Joseph endured before their baby’s birth. Typically, a family in a neighborhood will schedule a night for the posada to be held at their home. Every home has a nativity scene and the hosts of the posada act as the hoteleros (innkeepers). Neighborhood children and adults are the peregrinos (pilgrims), who have to request lodging by going house to house singing a traditional song. All pilgrims carry lit candles as individuals dressed as Mary and Joseph actually lead the procession. At each house, the resident responds by refusing lodging until weary travelers reached the designated site for the party, where Mary and Joseph are finally recognized and allowed to enter. Once the hoteleros (innkeepers) let them in, the group of guests come into the home and kneel around the Nativity scene to pray the rosary. At the end of the long journey, there will be villancicos (Christmas carols), children will break open colorful piñatas with bats while blindfolded to obtain candy hidden inside, and there will be a feast.
This “waiting in action” is all too familiar for our Latino families. Most families, like the Holy Family, had no option but to start their pilgrimage to “Bethlehem” a little sooner than the rest of us. They, too, are only looking for some safety, warmth, a space to claim as their own, a kind heart, a welcoming smile, a friendly face that would invite them to “lay their heads and rest a bit” with the rest of our household. Each family terribly pregnant with our Savior. Each family knocking at our doors today.
For Catholics today, it is all too easy for Santa, snowmen, office parties, and shopping to overwhelm the holy season of Advent. Yet we must find a way to blend both the sacred and secular traditions in a way that help us truly celebrate the season. Spain and Rome’s traditional sense of fasting and penance might be one way to do this. Latinos’ prayerful sense of Posadas is another idea to keep in mind. The church calls us to prepare ourselves to celebrate the whole mystery of the Incarnation during advent. May the Advent practices we choose transform our hearts into worthy dwelling places for Mary’s Son. May this holy season of preparation ready us for the birth in Bethlehem and the Second Coming of our Lord.
Faith Formation for Hispanics, Diocese of Camden.