By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Episcopal parishes are bringing a touch of drama, playfulness, and Latino culture to their Advent traditions by observing the liturgy of Las Posadas, which depicts Joseph and Mary’s long-suffering search for shelter.

Popular in Mexico, Cuba, and parts of Central America, Las Posadas involves a flexible program of prayers, processions, and singing as characters dressed as Joseph and Mary are turned away again and again. Finally, they are welcomed into a humble refuge, followed by a fiesta of sharing traditional foods and smashing a seven-pointed piñata representing the deadly sins.

“It has been discovered by the Anglo congregations as a wonderful drama that kinds of accentuates and puts on flesh on the Advent season,” said Al Rodriguez, interim director of Latino/Hispanic Studies at Seminary of the Southwest. “They’re also discovering that it’s a wonderful way to have an outreach to a local neighborhood or area. In reality, it’s kind of an evangelistic tool.”

Doors are opening to make Las Posadas more accessible to congregations. Since 2015, Forward Movement has offered a free Las Posadas resource in Spanish and English.

In July, the 79th General Convention approved adding Las Posadas to the Book of Occasional Services.

On Nov. 10, the Diocese of East Carolina augmented its promotion of Las Posadas with a six-hour cooking workshop on how to prepare Las Posadas cuisine from Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela.

“When we’re thinking about our Advent and Christmas traditions, they’re kind of a hodgepodge borrowed from a bunch of different cultures anyway,” said the Rev. Fred Clarkson, Spanish-language ministry coordinator for the Diocese of East Carolina and a priest at St. Peter’s Church in Washington, N.C. “This is a way of really engaging the biblical story and really engaging the gift of Hispanic culture. And that’s the gift that it offers.”

Las Posadas often looks different north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Mexican congregations usually celebrate Las Posadas nightly from Dec. 16 through 24 — one night for each month of Mary’s pregnancy — with the fiesta on the ninth night (Christmas Eve). Anglo churches in the United States often condense Las Posadas into fewer nights, with some observing it in a single evening, Clarkson said.

Congregations are adapting the program to their settings. For instance, on Dec. 23 at St. Bede’s in Atlanta, Mary and Joseph will move from one room to the next within the church building until finally they are welcomed into the nave for Holy Eucharist, followed by decorating a Christmas tree and a piñata for the kids.

At Bushwick Abbey and its host church, Iglesia de la Santa Cruz in Brooklyn, congregants last year brought Las Posadas into the streets. Mary, Joseph, and pilgrims sang for shelter outside a few local bodegas that are displaying art in their windows as part of the church’s Bodega Advent Project.

Las Posadas gave the two Episcopal congregations a way to transcend language barriers and do ministry side by side in Advent, according to Vince Anderson, director of arts and community development at Bushwick Abbey.

“We used the traditional Posada operetta,” led by a retired priest who has experience with it, Anderson said. “He led the singing and did the little dialogue. He even ended up singing the parts for the bodega owner. It was all pretty scrappy, which adds to the beauty of it.”

Forward Movement reports growing usage of its Las Posadas guide. English-language downloads have increased by 20 to 30 percent annually since 2015, said Hugo Olaiz, assistant editor for Latino/Hispanic Ministries. Spanish-language downloads have been steady, he said.

“If, instead of overeating, buying expensive gifts, and celebrating Santa, were we to celebrate Posadas as they do in many parts of Latin America, we would have Christ-centered Christmas,” Olaiz said via email.

Among the congregations that have celebrated Las Posadas in the past two years: Church of the Good Shepherd in Silver City, N.M.; St. Dunstan’s in Madison, Wis.; St. John’s in Washington, D.C.; and St. John’s in San Bernardino, Calif.

Because the liturgy is flexible, it can be adapted to suit various Advent themes and emphases. Some have used it to inspire action on immigration issues by framing how Joseph’s and Mary’s plight has parallels to today’s challenges facing refugees and migrants. Others take turns hosting a Las Posadas event in different neighborhoods each night and use the occasion to invite neighbors over for what is, in effect, a comfortable rendering of the Christmas story.

“A lot of the Christmas traditions that we tend to practice don’t really engage the biblical story,” Clarkson said. “That’s one of the reasons why Las Posadas does appeal to people when they see it. It’s really about the story and why we really celebrate Christmas, as opposed to this kind of commercial nature of Christmas and what it has become. That’s really the beauty of it.”

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