It’s so often the women, it seems. Since that first Sunday morning when the myrrh-bearing women made their way to the tomb, it’s so often the women. The ones who teach catechism to the children, prepare the casseroles for the funeral luncheons, coordinate volunteers for the homeless shelter, lead the decades of the rosary before Mass, gather on Monday mornings to count the collection from the weekend liturgies, visit those who are shut in to bring the Eucharist and companionship.
I have known many modern-day Annas, humble and devoted wisdom-women, faithfully attending daily Mass and offering a silent, prayerful presence at adoration. I have known many modern-day Loises and Eunices, mothers and grandmothers committed to sharing their deep faith with younger generations. I have known many modern-day Mary of Magdalas, who give generously of their own means to support the gospel mission.
A few Advents ago I met Angela, a modern-day Mexican American Martha leading a faith community in the parish basement social hall in a small Iowa town.
Angela is introduced to me by Joan, a parish staff member, as “the Queen of Las Posadas.” Angela eschews the title, saying that her efforts in organizing nine consecutive nights of celebration are out of grateful love for Dios mi Rey.
Before the vigil Mass for the third Sunday of Advent, Angela is arranging Spanish moss around a simple altar. I assist her, pulling apart the strands and laying them around the nativity scene (minus the Holy Family—it’s not Christmas yet!), candles bearing the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and strings of Christmas lights. Angela had been awake since 2 a.m., having just pulled a double shift as a certified nursing assistant at a nursing home.
She tells her story as we work. She was born in Mexico and first moved to California where she lived with her brothers. She has three children, all young adults now, and moved to this small, Midwestern, meatpacking town because she didn’t want to raise her son in the big city where they initially settled.
As a kid, he was muy inquieto, something of a troublemaker, she explains. He might have been exposed to bad things in the big city, so she moved her family here. Now, gracias a Dios, all of her children are doing well, and she is only a few paychecks away from paying off the loan on her trailer, she says with a grateful smile as we continue to arrange the Spanish moss.
After the altar is finished I climb the stairs, dip my finger in the holy water font by the door, and slide into a wooden pew after genuflecting. Around me are tall stained-glass windows and plaster statues: the Blessed Mother holding a rosy-cheeked baby Jesus, St. Patrick with a cloak of shamrocks. The church is soon full of immigrant families like Angela’s, and Mass begins.
The presider—white and a native English speaker—has learned to pronounce the words of the Mass in Spanish. He stumbles over the text of the homily, something generic about the need to rejoice, with a few quotations thrown in from G.K. Chesterton, St. John Vianney, and Friedrich Nietzsche.
I look around as he preaches to little girls with their dark hair carefully braided, men with pointy-toed cowboy boots, mothers who hold slumbering babies or shush their small children. I wonder what they hear in the words of European philosophers, coming from a week of labor. As Christmas draws close and they live with the worry of ICE raids and stretching their paychecks from the plant until the end of the month, are they inspired to rejoice?
I don’t see the priest again after he processes out during the closing hymn. When Joan, Angela, and I go back down the stairs, the parish basement is full and buzzing with energy. Angela is handing out pamphlets with the words to the posadas song and other Spanish-language carols. She calls us all together and leads us in making the sign of the cross. Then she leads a procession of children around the room and we sing in call and response—half of us taking the role of travel-weary Mary and Joseph, half of us taking the role of inhospitable innkeepers.
“In the name of heaven, give us shelter,” some sing to us. “This isn’t an inn. Go away and leave us alone,” we sing back. It goes without saying that the words we sing tell a story as true about these people maligned as illegals and demonized as criminals as it was about that young couple in first-century Palestine.
Afterward Angela reads a section of scripture and delivers a brief reflection to all of us gathered, her voice strong and sure, betraying none of her fatigue from working a double shift. She is a parent speaking to other parents, encouraging a regular practice of family meals and reminding parents that children grow up quickly.
Part of making our hearts ready for the birth of Jesus, she says, is prioritizing family time to pass along our faith and values. The home is la iglesia doméstica, Angela says. She is an immigrant speaking to other immigrants, encouraging her flock not to lose their cultural and religious traditions as they adapt to life in America. She speaks with authority, firm but not scolding. I watch the families watch Angela, nodding in agreement and smiling knowingly when they can relate to her own struggles to get her kids to put their phones away at a family meal.
Afterward the kids and then the adults get aguinaldos—bags crammed with peanuts in the shell, mandarin oranges, cookies, and little candy bars. Then we line up to receive plates of spicy, corn husk-wrapped tamales pulled from enormous metal pots. Angela leads us in singing “Mi Burrito Sabanero” and “Campanas de Belén.”
Little kids run around the hallway laughing while their light-up sneakers glow with each step. Older kids trade goodies from their aguinaldo bags and peel their mandarin oranges. Adults drink tamarind ponche with cinnamon and sugarcane and talk to one another about Christmas plans. In this simple fellowship, there is a palpable sense of Gaudete Sunday’s joy. I’m sorry that the presider is missing out on the festive second act following the eucharistic celebration.
There will always be those who dismiss popular religious gatherings like this celebration of Las Posadas as folk Catholicism and somehow less pure or authentic. But as I look around the noisy basement, I realize this is the lifeblood of faith.
Community starts in upstairs church, where sacraments are celebrated, formal liturgies are held, and soaring Gothic arches inspire awe. But community blossoms here in downstairs church with its homemade altar, lay-led faith sharing, home-cooked traditional food, and rickety metal folding chairs. And it’s primarily the women—the madres and the abuelitas like Angela—who preside, preach, and weave connections among the faithful.
When the evening draws to a close, families bundle up in coats, hats, and scarves and make their way out the door with calls of “Dios te bendiga” and “Dios primero, nos vemos mañana.” After leading the clean-up crew in taking out the trash and washing the serving trays, Angela and I say good night. As I step outside into the December night, aguinaldo in one hand and bilingual church bulletin in the other, I think of how God comes without permission, without papers, to a world with no room at the inn, vulnerable and unexpected, to the humility of downstairs church.
This article also appears in the December 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 84, No. 12, pages 29–30). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
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