“Lo envolvió en pañales y lo acostó en un pesebre.”
“She wrapped him in diapers and laid him in a manger.” Luke 2:7
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! I hope you are continuing to savor the mystery of the Incarnation, God in your skin, your body, your mind, your heart, your joy, your pain, your longing, your every breath- the mystery of love made flesh in you, in us. It’s never too late to say Merry Christmas because God is continually becoming flesh in you each day.
This Christmas was very different for me, not only because I am in a different country. For the past 10 years I spent mid-December to mid-January in our annual 30-day silent retreat (spiritual exercises). After almost a year (cumulatively) of silent contemplation of the mystery of the Incarnation, I lived Christmas in full-blown mission. From December 15-23 we went on mission to Don Matias, a rural area outside Medellin, with about 25 lay disciples of Verbum Dei between the ages of 13-60. This group divided into two in order to cover two different areas. My group stayed with a family on a dairy, so I felt very at home (for those of you who don’t know, I’m from the Central Valley of California which is full of dairies!). The photos below are the views from the house. The family was so generous to open their home to us and provide all our meals- think 15 people in a small house with one bathroom!
We connected with the local parish, who welcomed us to help them reach the families far and wide in the mountainous rural area between 1-2 hours by car from the town, but which are still part of the parish (very few people own cars). Most of the people are Catholic, but they can seldom go to Mass due to distance.
The roads are not paved, and the houses are very spread out. Each morning we would walk down dirt roads to visit the houses, share with each family the message of Christmas, listen to their lives, pray with them, and invite them to the novena and Mass each night in a community room.
Most of the families are caretakers of the farms where they live. They do not own their homes or land, but work for others. They are quite poor. Many of the families were displaced by a guerrilla 10-20 years ago in other areas of Colombia, and came here to try to start a new life. One woman we visited seemed full of sadness and sorrow. Her eyes told of distant memories that still seemed to fill each and every moment with pain. She kept covering her face with her hand as if to hide her grief. She lived only with her daughter and her father. When we asked how they celebrate Christmas, if they have any special traditions, she said they don’t do anything to celebrate anymore. I imagined that after such a tragic experience of the guerrilla overtaking their home, and perhaps killing some of their family members, the memories of how they used to celebrate Christmas together must be too painful. As we shared with her the Good News that Jesus comes as a Prince of Peace, a fragile baby in a manger, a refugee child with a donkey instead of a war horse, to become one with our cry, and to bring peace and healing to our hearts and sorrow, a smile began to emerge through her pain… a gentle opening. In the awkward silences that lingered throughout the conversation, as we tried to perceive one another’s stories through words spoken and unspoken, it seemed that sorrow and hope met and began to talk to each other again.
Each night we would gather in a community room for the Novena. In Colombia they celebrate a novena for 9 days before Christmas. The Christmas novena is not a rosary, but a series of prayers to el niño Jesus (baby Jesus). The main refrain of the novena is a cry:
Ven, ven, ven, ven a nuestras almas, niñito! (x2)
Ven a nuestras almas!
No tardes tanto, no tardes tanto, niñito Ven!
Ven, Ven, Amen, Jesus, Viva!
Come, come come, come to our souls, little child!
Don’t take so long, come!
Come, come, Amen, Jesus, Live!
In some parts of Colombia they sing:
Ven niñito querido que yo te quiero contar
todas las injusticias que vive hoy la humanidad.
Come beloved little child!
I want to tell you all the injustices that humanity lives today.
I had a lot of fun playing the guitar for the novena with the children screaming at the top of their lungs “Jesus, Viva!” The Christmas novena is VERY important in Colombian culture. An architect I met in Medellin even told me that they pray the novena in his company office every day after work before Christmas. The novena is also an important community gathering especially for children whose families cannot afford to buy presents for them for Christmas. The children receive gifts at the end of the novena. One of the mothers who brought her children to the novena told me that she had never received a gift in her life- not for Christmas, nor for her birthday. They simply could not afford to buy gifts. So she really appreciated her children receiving something. At the end of the novena we had a piñata filled with small gifts and candies for the children. In addition to the social significance of the novena, the spiritual significance was very powerful to cry out together with the longing for Jesus to be born in the midst of so many situations of pain and sorrow in the world and in each of our hearts.
So for the first Christmas in 10 years, instead of contemplating the manger in our chapel, I contemplated the Word made flesh in the living manger of each home, family and person that we visited. It wasn’t very hard to imagine because all the homes were farms full of animals. And the people were much like the shepherds, with very little education, people close to the earth, and without land of their own (the shepherds were the only people, according to the gospels, to whom the angels appeared to announce the Savior’s birth).
In addition to the beautiful experience of sharing with the people, was the beauty of the land and the countryside… waking up every morning to green mountains covered in mist, drinking milk fresh from the cow, cuddling with dogs, puppies, cats, cows, calves, and riding a horse. We also enjoyed hiking across the gorgeous green fields and mountains, swimming in rivers, running barefoot alongside the river through the thick green grass while dodging the many cow pies, and drinking in the brilliance of the stars (it was the first time I’ve been able to see the stars since I arrived because there is too much light pollution in Medellin). Suffice to say, it was REALLY hard to leave… to go back to the city with its noise and pollution and traffic. After living in large cities for 15 years now, this time in the countryside reminded me that I am a country girl! It is in my soul, my blood. I felt powerfully and deeply connected to my family roots of ranchers and all, just 2 generations back. I love the smell of dirt, grass, sweat, and cows… but NOT pigs! What an awful smell! It was a beautiful experience of the incarnation.
Before the mission, December was already full of Christmas celebrations. Colombians love Christmas. They go all out. December in Medellin is a constant paranda (party) with music and fireworks all month long. Medellin is famous for its alumbrados, or Christmas lights. My community made sure to take me and another missionary who is new to Medellin to see the lights the first week of December. They are magical- and enormous! I hope the pictures give you a sense of how giant they are. We also went to sing villancicos (Christmas carols) in a convalescent home with a group of students from the University of Antioquia to share the Christmas spirit.
The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, is also a special celebration here. On the eve of the feast, everybody lights candles in the streets and in their houses because they believe that Mary passes through the city that night. As you light each candle, you pray for a family member or anyone you want to remember or pray for.
Besides the Christmas mission, the last 5 months since I arrived I have been slowly adjusting to the language, culture, and ministry here. I primarily work with young adults and teens. We have several young adult groups. I do a lot of small group work, faith sharing, and spiritual accompaniment, especially with young women. It is slow, deep work, but very rewarding, as is anything that is worthwhile- it takes time. But it is really beautiful to see how God works in people’s hearts and lives.
In November we had a weekend retreat with people from ages 15 to 70. It is always a rich experience for people to share across generations. The weekend was filled with times of prayer, games, dancing and laughter. I introduced a U.S. American classic- S’mores in our evening bonfire- they were a hit! (It was a Colombian-ized version of s’mores since we could not find graham crackers here, but they were still good
We also organized a hiking retreat for young adults. There are seven peaks that surround Medellin. We hiked Pan de Azucar (like Sugarloaf). Over the past few decades the population growth in the city has burst up the sides of the mountains surrounding the valley by “invasion,” or squatters. People literally piece the houses together from bricks and other materials. The city is implementing a green belt strategy to try to curb population growth on these steep hillsides by creating public spaces, gardens, and trails. We included an ecological element to the retreat to integrate spirituality and care for the earth (as if they are two different things!).
I also participated in a panel on grief. Several disciples (committed lay members) of our community here in Medellin are piloting a Ministerio de Duelo (Grief Ministry). They invited me to participate in a panel with two other nurses, in addition to several other presenters, a palliative care physician, a grief counselor-psychologist, who covered other physical-emotional-theological dimensions. I covered spiritual accompaniment in grief, focusing on the lament psalms as a school of prayer to learn how to hold our grief, and be held in our grief. Considering the history of violence here in Colombia which has left no one untouched, it seems to me that grief processes are essential to the soul of Colombian society, and may be quite underestimated in spirituality here.
Mental fatigue from language immersion is a very strange thing. Some days you just hit a wall, and it takes a few days to get over the mental exhaustion. But it’s slowly getting better. Before moving to Colombia, I was pretty proud of my Spanish. I even thought my accent wasn’t too bad. Ha! Was I mistaken. I have such a gringo accent. The moment I open my mouth in a store, the prices go up! (Many store owners literally raise the prices for foreigners because our money is worth so much more. Little do they know I am not a normal gringa. I don’t have money!)
I have been speaking Spanish for 20 years. But it’s a very different thing to be immersed in it long term. Now I feel like a baby learning to talk. When you’re immersed in it day in and day out, you feel like all you’re doing is making mistakes. Sometimes when I hear children talk, I think, “That’s what I sound like!” And when kids hear me talk, the expression on their faces is priceless! Their little brains are trying to process my accent, but they don’t know that’s what it’s called. Sometimes they ask me, “De donde es usted?” (Where are you from?) It’s a very humbling experience to say the least to be constantly corrected (with love!) It’s good for the ego. It helped me to pray with Jesus as a baby who had to learn how to talk.
Yesterday, I had a riveting conversation with a 3-year-old girl on the bus. Towards the end of the conversation, I told her, “Your Spanish is better than mine.” Inquisitive eyes stared back at me. I don’t think she got the joke.
Thank you for “listening” and sharing the journey with me. You are all in my heart and prayers. I pray that 2018 is full of newness of life and hope and beauty for each of you. Just as the angels told the shepherds that their Savior was a baby in diapers in a stable nearby, may you witness God’s presence and Incarnation in the ordinariness of your daily life as the history of salvation continues to unfold in and through you.