Monday, December 12, 2011

A "Tourista" Sits in on Guadalupano Celebration

Well, this year I did it. I got up  in the middle of the night to get ready to go to church for La Danza and Las MaƱanitas - the pre-dawn Mexican cultural celebration for Our Lady of Guadalupe. I have wanted to to this for a while, and as the vice chair of our Pastoral Council, I kind of felt I should do this.  Maybe I missed them, but the only other "Anglo" I saw in the room besides myself was my pastor, who speaks fluent Spanish. I, on the other hand, speak only a little, understand maybe half of what I hear, and felt a bit like the proverbial tourista. 

As I came into the back of church, I recognized Oscar, a talented musician who directs and plays with the 1:00 p.m. Sunday Spanish choir - dressed in full regalia - complete with feather headdress.  He smiled and mugged for my camera.  Later,  he took his place beside the altar and began to beat the drum that summoned about 30 colorfully dressed dancers, mostly women and teens, to the front. For the next 25 minutes they stamped, swayed, spun and shook maracas, in honor of the Virgin, as Oscar drummed out various rhythms. Their performance was beautiful, strange and a bit primitive.  Certainly like nothing I have ever seen in church before. The colorful costumes seemed a bit skimpy for a December day in the Midwest, but soon the dancers were mopping their brows  from their exertion, despite the chilly room.

Once they had finished, Rosalinda, a parish reader and fellow member of Pastoral Council, stepped up to the microphone and read a long text about the story of Juan Diego and the Virgen.  Then, a seven-man mariachi band  came up and began to play and sing. I know enough Spanish to know that many of these were, in effect, love songs to the Virgin, singing of her as the "queen of hope" and identifying themselves as Guadalupano, people of Guadalupe - her children.  The people joined in most of these,singing by heart and from the heart. Of course, having no music and not knowing them, mostly all I could do was listen and add in the refrain occasionally, when I could pick it out.  I could sense their great love, even if I could not fully understand the texts.

Throughout the hour and a half of the pre-Mass celebration, some women, from the back of the church shouted out phrases that seemed to have set responses, almost as if they were cheerleading.  I have to admit, this morning was a strangely fascinating if rather foreign experience. I felt a strange sensation of being an outsider, yet not a total stranger. It's my parish, but it's their parish too. Despite the language and culture gap, we all belong, in our own way, to the community of St. John the Baptist. The Virgen is my mother in faith too, even if by adoption. Maybe someday, I will feel more at home with the whole thing. Until then, I will keep stretching my comfort level to join them when I can. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Rejoicing in a World That Has Forgotten Joy

Brothers and sisters:
Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing.
In all circumstances give thanks,
for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.  (1 Thes: 16-17)
 On this, the Third Sunday of Advent, the apostle Paul issues us a challenge to be joyful and prayerful - in all circumstances. That, frankly, can be difficult as the holidays approach - especially for those who grieve.

Many of you know that two and a half years ago, I lost the most significant person in my life. I am, however, not the only one. Many people have experienced deep and painful loss and face the coming of Christmas with some degree of depression.  A time of year that is traditionally focused on family, love, and being with people we care about, can only tap into memories and regrets about the person or persons who are no longer with us. For people of faith who grieve, this time of year can be particularly painful, because the relationship with God may be somewhat conflicted.  In the larger context, I believe we live in a world where many people are not only unhappy, they have forgotten, or perhaps seldom, if ever, experienced true joy.

There is a real difference between happiness and joy. One is temporal and temporary, the other runs deeper. A person can, I have found, be unhappy about the circumstances of life, but still have an underlying sense of joy that stems from something deeper.  For me, that is from knowing that even if I find it hard to trust God after my experience of great loss, I know instinctively that God has never truly abandoned me and is simply waiting for me to sort it all out.

For people of a secular bent who have little or no sense of the presence of God, superficial, temporary happiness based in possessions (which can be lost) and people (who may either fail us or die)  may be all there is. Those who do not have an experience of the love of God, if they lose someone or something significant, have only themselves and their relationships with others to rely on.  All of those things are fallible. As Teresa of Avila said: "God alone is enough."

The readings today call us to pray anyway - to pull ourselves out of ourselves and look ahead to the coming of one who is greater than we are and to have faith that in the end, everything will indeed be alright. Only that kind of faith can bring true joy. In the meantime, we are called to hope. Here are two songs, appropriate for this Sunday that for me express this  perfectly: