No room at the inn
Mary was freezing in the drizzling rain and snow. Her limbs were shaking and her toes were numb. Joseph was wrapped up tighter, so he was more stoic. But Noodles, the donkey, brayed his complaints to the Salt Lake City neighborhood loud and clear: It's cold. Get me outta here.
Discomfort is a central part of Las Posadas, a long-standing Mexican tradition that re-enacts the biblical couple's search for shelter in Bethlehem.
"You realize it couldn't have been easy, and we didn't even walk very far," said Mary, aka Stephanie Metos. "I never would have made it."
Las Posadas also reminds participants of the agony of today's strangers looking for lodging only to be turned away repeatedly. For the Rev. Steve Klemz of Zion Lutheran Church, it is a pointed comment on immigration.
"Las Posadas is a beautiful, engaging ritual, but the reality it addresses is a painful one: the reality of human need and the fear and exclusion of the stranger," Klemz told onlookers from his and other churches who gathered Sunday at the church. "We all know couples like Mary and Joseph. They have come from somewhere else to find lodging. Some have come looking for work that pays. Many are undocumented. They have come, not great with child, but pregnant with the hope of a new life. Too often these strangers are not greeted with hospitality or even acknowledged as human beings created in God's image. They are simply dismissed as 'illegal.' "
Last year on the eve of Las Posadas, which runs from Dec. 16 to 24, the U.S. House passed the Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act (House Resolution 4437), Klemz explained. The bill would make being here without papers an aggravated felony.
This week the government conducted another nationwide raid on foreign workers, rounding up hundreds - including many in Utah - who did not have papers.
The plight of immigrants hovered over participants on this December eve as they carried candles into the stormy night, following Joseph, aka Antonio Arce, an Argentine Mormon who now lives in Smithfield. Metos, a member of Zion Lutheran, was not pregnant but added extra layers to appear as if she were.
The pilgrims approached the first door, where Joseph said in Spanish: "In the name of God, we ask those who dwell here, give to some travelers lodging this evening."
"This is not an inn; move on - I cannot open lest you be a scoundrel," came the response from University of Utah students Sasha Anderson and Jack Lewis.
The group mumbled one stanza of "Silent Night" before moving on.
If Utah were Mexico, the couple and the processional would then have moved from house to house, entreating householders to let them stay. In the scripted exchanges, the requests grow more urgent. "Don't be inhuman. Have mercy on us. We are worn out," Joseph entreats.
The responses are equally harsh. "Don't bother us. I'll give you a thrashing. Let me sleep."
Here, though, the weather was unforgiving, so the procession went straight from the first house to the steps of the church, where the holy parents were rejected once again.
Finally, Joseph told the surrogate innkeeper that his wife was Mary, Queen of Heaven, and she was going to be the mother of the Divine Word. The humble owner welcomed the expectant parents and everyone into the warm sanctuary - except, of course, Noodles.
"Blessed is the house that shelters this day the pure Virgin, the beautiful Mary," they sang.
After the joyous celebration, the adults retired to the church basement to munch on traditional Mexican dishes, while the children painted ornaments and pounded the piñatas.
"The community remembers anew how the stranger at one's door can be God in disguise," wrote Klemz in the printed program. "We ritually participate in being rejected and being welcomed, in slamming the door on the needy and opening it wide. In this way we are renewed in the Christian practice of hospitality."
* Roman Catholic Celebracion de la Posada: The Roman Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City will hold a Las Posadas celebration tonight at 7:45 p.m. at Cathedral of the Madeleine, 331 E. South Temple, Salt Lake City. Msgr. J. Terrence Fitzgerald will preside at the celebration, which will include pinatas, treats and singing. Information: 801-328-8641.