Reflection: A Las Posadas Communion

Last year I did not attend any of the Las Posadas nights here at St. Francis.  Mostly I think I was too stressed and withdrawn to want to be around happy people; my sprained ankle was a good excuse.  This year is different.  I’m different.  Although the stress of this missionary work is still high, my attitude and approach to it has changed.  My center and focus have begun to stabilize, and I am experiencing the serenity from having turned things out of my control over to God.  It is difficult to “let go & let God,” but, Oh! the freedom and peace that follow!

For those of you unfamiliar with Las Posadas, it is a nine day prayer and celebration beginning on December 16th, and ending on Christmas Eve. Click here for more detailed information.  Las Posadas is celebrated throughout Mexico and here in the American Southwest.  For at least 10 years I’ve been reading Tomie dePaola’s book The Night of Las Posadas to my First Graders in Florida, introducing them to this Hispanic Christmas tradition.  We would then make little construction paper donkeys with fan-folded legs, paper clips on the hooves, and a string to make it go “clip-clop” across the tile floor.  I brought this art lesson with me out here, and the kids loved making their little donkeys!  But, never did I imagine I would ever get to participate in the beautiful tradition of Las Posadas.

Unlike the book, here in the middle of nowhere we cannot walk from house to house knocking on doors every night for nine nights.  We’d freeze before getting to the first door, and the total distance travelled over the nine nights would be greater than the 80-90 miles Mary & Joseph initially travelled to get to Bethlehem!  So this community has improvised their Las Posadas (as it improvises with just about everything here!).  Nine nights; nine homes.  Each night members of this small parish gather at someone’s home and the prayer begins.  A small group gathers outside the front door reciting the words of the Holy Couple, “Let us in; my wife is weary and cannot walk; I request lodging from you.”  The group inside responds with “No!  This is no Inn, and you might be a crook!”  This back and forth continues for several verses, all sung in Spanish.  When those inside recognize the Holy Couple, their tune changes and Mary & Joseph are welcomed into the home.  Once inside the host family chooses Christmas carols to sing, grace is said, and everyone begins to eat what the host family has prepared.  The building of community happens at celebrations like this.  I have always said that holidays and traditions have two common factors in every culture, food and people.  And of both factors it is understood:  The more the merrier!

As a Catholic I was brought up to believe that when we receive the Eucharist at mass, we are partaking in the Body of Christ and we, as a faith community, become one flesh in Christ, nourished to do the good works of faith we are called to do (CCC 1331).  I participated in two nights of Las Posadas, and I am feeling blessed, humbled, and nourished for the experience!  The consecrated Eucharist is sacred and treated with great reverence in our churches and cathedrals.  Sharing the prayers and songs of Las Posadas with the members of this community is also sacred.  These last two nights have been for me a Communion in the Body of Christ that is just as sacred to me as the Communion received during Sunday mass.  “Communion renews, strengthens, and deepens this incorporation into the Church, already achieved by Baptism” (CCC 1396).  I certainly feel renewed, strengthened and deeply incorporated into this part of Christ’s Church.

I met new people, shared faith, laughter, good food, and great joy.  A real sense of communion in the Body of Christ!  This experience will certainly sustain me throughout this Advent and Christmas season.  Thanks, St. Francis parishioners.  Last year perhaps I did not feel worthy to enter under your roof, but your love and hospitality have healed me!

Merry Christmas, and may peace & blessings be with you and your community!


Holiday Activism for the Family Dinner Table

My classroom is tidy again, I’ve left school behind for Christmas break, and I have NOT taken home any school work!  I hope my fellow over-achievers out there are able to do the same in the coming days & weeks (especially you teachers!!!).

So much is going on at this time of year; I am always amazed at the busy-ness around me. Some of it is necessary, but much of it is not.  Support for, prayers for, and the work for peace and justice, however, never takes a holiday!

With so many issues in the news lately I wanted to focus on some things to consider taking part in and passing along that don’t involve demonstrating en masse in Ferguson, NYC, or DC (although I do encourage that!).  Many of us will be spending time with family, and this is the perfect time to drop little seeds of knowledge about the issues we care about.  Now, I am not advocating for starting family feuds over politics, religion, or other potentially volatile subjects!  Try a more subtle approach.  I have found some links of interest below that I think will help with re-educating the family.  If your family is anything like mine, you’ll have some explaining to do, and at some point you’ll just have to “agree to disagree” until Easter (or Passover)!  I can get away with a lot around our holiday table:  I bring desert & rule the homemade whipped cream bowl.  No whip for the unruly!

So here’s what I’ve found to share at this year’s Christmas dinner with the family:

With gift buying and giving come concerns about child labor, workers rights and their dignity, as well as Fair Trade and sustainably made items. Even if you make your gifts, it’s worth going that extra mile to make sure your supplies are sourced with these things in mind. Some good sources for guides & information include Fair Trade USA, US Department of Labor, and Free2Work, among others.

Many of us will eat out over the holidays. Many restaurant chains are being urged to take steps toward buying produce from sources that respect the workers dignity, and provide fair wages for their labor.  Those of you who know me know how much of an advocate I am for the CIW (Coalition of Immokalee Workers) and the Fair Food Program.  They have made such amazing progress over the last 20 years!  Corporations like Taco Bell, Burger King, Subway, Chipotle, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and Wal-Mart have signed the Fair Food Agreement and are now part of the solution to improve the lives of farmworkers and their families.  But now, in the wake of the LA Times investigative report into the labor practices of Mexican farms, we find several Corporations  who are guilty of being complicate with the growers in Mexico who deny their workers the most basic of human rights.  As we gather ’round our plentiful tables, we must consider where our food comes from, and who harvests the apples in our pies, the celery in our stuffing, the grapes for our wine, and the mined minerals in the devices with which we capture our precious moments on social media.

There is a new petition addressing some of these concerns. Click here to add your name to this petition letting Subway, Darden, and Safeway know that we insist on oversight and victim compensation.  If it’s wrong for US children to labor in the fields for 12 hours a day, with few (if any) breaks, and for a mere pittance, then it’s absolutely wrong for children of other countries to do so.   If you click here you’ll find this petition and several others from Fair World Project.

And, finally, I ask you to pray for peace.  No matter what your beliefs are, no matter what formal, informal, traditional, or non-traditional faith foundation you may practice, prayer is powerful.  You may call it by another name, but if you are silent with your thoughts, you are in prayer, and your prayerful energy is joined with that of others.  That’s what makes prayer so powerful!  I ask that you join me & my community in prayer on January 6th as we pray for 3 special Sisters on a special mission.  I also invite you to pray for peace daily.  Peace in our world, peace in our homes, and peace in our hearts.  Every day.

Merry Christmas, everyone!



An Advent Perspective: The Gift of Self

Every Thanksgiving I mention it, “Let’s all make our gifts this year & focus on the true meaning of Christmas:  The gift of self.” A few years ago no one took me seriously until they opened their homemade ceramic candle holders. Another year it was handmade coiled baskets stuffed with homemade cookies. Last year I made little fabric snack-sacks & coffee cozies. I’m still working on this year’s gift theme, but I found a new pattern to sew that I think the family will appreciate & use often.

So why hasn’t my family taken the plunge into making their own Christmas gifts? I hear the usual lament of “But, you’re an artist! It’s easy for you!” That may be true in part, but I believe we are all meant for creativity. Creating, building, growing, caring, thinking, sharing and giving are part of what makes us human. Creativity & problem-solving are part of our human nature. Besides, people were celebrating Christmas in very loving ways long before Hallmark, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and American Express brain-washed us into becoming the consumer zombies we are today!

I grew up with the “Brady Bunch,” the “Partridge Family,” “Little House on the Prairie,” and the “Walton’s.” Guess which families seemed more true to life for me? I can remember Laura Ingells telling Mr. Oleson (when he offered her a pencil “on credit”), “My Pa says never to buy anything on credit. If you can’t pay for something, you just do without.” Wise words! I also remember when all John-boy got for Christmas one year was a stack of composition books.  What better gift to give a budding young writer? Although TV families are not especially true-to-life, the sentiment that I took away was true enough: Gift-giving isn’t about the gift itself, it is about the relationship between the giver & the recipient.  Holidays, too, are about relationships, food (especially food!), love, and the gift of self.

I wrote about this last year & included some links to some of my favourite organizations where you can buy gifts of service in someone’s name or memory. Again this year I encourage you to celebrate family, food, and perhaps some new traditions that are more sustainable, life-affirming, and/or socially just.  Get creative with your gift-giving & think outside the box.  In fact, think WAY outside the Big Box [store]!!!

Please share in the comments section some of your creative ideas for sharing the “gift of self” with family & friends.

Merry Christmas, Peace & Joy, everyone!

Christmas: Reflecting on What’s Important

I wrote this on December 12th, just two days before the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I’ve decided to now post it for two reasons. Firstly, it has reminded me of the importance of family and friends not just during the holidays, but everyday. Life is so precious & our time together should never be taken for granted. Secondly, I think it relates to my post on “Culture” in that we do tend to lose our focus on what’s important & what we value in life. Reflecting on the tragic deaths of last week has helped me put things in proper perspective. It was a difficult week trying to keep my focus on my students when I can so easily imagine being in that situation. (Our school called a Code Yellow Lockdown Thursday morning because of a dangerous domestic problem across the street.) I am happy to say that the Christmas Pageant went well, and the kids did a terrific job! I beamed with pride at the beautiful children in my care! I mourn with Newtown, Connecticut for the children who will never be a part of school & family traditions like this.

Christmas can be a dreaded time of year for those of us involved in liturgy, choir, or schools; especially elementary education.  I know I’m not alone in feeling overwhelmed by a “to-do” list with a December 24th deadline, but when did my religion become just another series of deadlines and due dates?  I think it’s because I keep losing my focus and I take my responsibilities and myself way too seriously.

Although I have responsibilities at school and at my parish during these hectic liturgical seasons, no one will be scarred for life if half the shepherds and Zechariah run out of the Christmas Pageant practice early to play in their basketball tournament.  Practice will go on even if Mary had to leave after lunch for an orthodontist appointment.  While some may indeed be scarred by the annual “dueling angels” in the auditorium as they choreograph their heavenly dance routine, life will go on!  I’m quite sure of it.  I’m still here to tell the tales and laugh about them!

Liturgical responsibilities can become a “cross” I carry around for all to see, or they can become my quiet gift to Jesus.  If I am to live each day of Advent getting ready for the celebration of the birth of our Savior, I need to put myself in perspective.  I am not the focus; the people I’ve been asked to serve are!

Each mini-crisis can become an opportunity to find a grace-filled moment and live in it.  Each mini-crisis is yet another opportunity to check my privilege and focus on what is truly important.  In keeping Jesus in focus, I can become less stressed, more joyful, and more present to Him, my students, my co-workers, and (miraculously) to myself.  When I take myself & my job too seriously I lose my focus, and thus the joy of the season.

Holidays rooted in religious traditions should always be about alms giving, service, spiritual renewal, family and food.  Yes, food!  Everything in life that is worth remembering or being a part of involves food, family and community.  My students know by now that I always associate art with food.  I can’t help myself!  For me food and family are just at the heart of good culture.  From this point everything in life flows and grows exponentially, in a good way, not in that “bad-for-the-planet-unsustainable” way.

So, what does all of this sentimental soul searching have to do with peace, social justice or sustainable living?  Everything!

Years ago I began talking about letting go of doing all of the things that our society calls “X-mas” traditions.  Nobody seemed to listen, take it seriously, or change the pattern of over-doing and overspending at Christmas.  And, I’m quite sure, behind every bumper sticker I saw that said “Put CHRIST back in Christmas”, there was a trunk full of crap for everybody on their all-inclusive Christmas list of family, friends, coworkers, acquaintances, the neighbor’s dog, and the boss’ spouse!  I soon began to realize that I needed to change my habits.  It’s the dilemma that individuals, political parties, and nations face every day.  It’s what quite possibly inspired Gandhi to say, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

I think my brother & sister-in-law actually did it first, but soon I found myself “casually” mentioning that I wasn’t buying anything for anybody, instead I was going to be making my gifts, as was traditionally the custom.  When I finally earned my degree and got a promotion I started buying “gifts of service” in the names of family members.  Heifer, Amnesty International, SERRV, SEVA, Made By Survivors, and Food for the Poor are some of my favourite charities to support.  Last year I made coil-baskets & filled them with homemade cookies and local, organic, and Fair Trade items. (Pictured below is the one I made for my mom!)

I highly recommend this approach to the holidays!  At first I felt like I was forgetting to do something as the final week of Advent approached.  I recall having a similar feeling years ago when our TV broke down, and was in the shop for two weeks.  The kids thought they would have nothing to “do”, but it’s amazing what happens when creativity is allowed to take over and fill our lives in a much more meaningful way.  Beauty, productivity, compassion and peace enter in when the clutter and stuff is cleared away.

I still feel overwhelmed sometimes, but not because of shopping.  Eliminating that stressor from my Christmas “to-do” list frees me up in many pleasant and unexpected ways!

Happy Advent & Merry Christmas!

Love, Peace & Joy to all!