It has been almost a month since I blogged last, as I have been out of town. However, it has most certainly not been a month of unblogworthy activity. I hope to catch up in a series of blog entries over the next few days (possibly weeks...).
My internal Christian calendar has been completely thrown off by the different holidays and weather of Nicaragua, along with the fact that I don't really have a church community here. As a result, I found myself contemplating how to prepare myself for Christmas without all the typical cultural, environmental, and religious cues. While perusing the blog of some friends, I read an entry by Megan Highfill, quoting Rachael Weasley: "Be an empty manger, and Christ will come." This sentence stuck with me, and became my Advent mantra. I decided to let go of all my expectations of what Christmas ought to be, and simply wait to see what came into in my manger.
Inspired by the Bilwi practice of "going to one's community" for Christmas, I flew to the Pacific to spend the week of Christmas in Nandasmo, staying with the family I lived with for a month during college. They are the closest I have to extended family in Nicaragua, and pretty darn close at that. Before I left, a friend asked me if I was evangelical like the family. We were discussing the widely held evangelical belief that dancing is sinful. "Yes, I consider myself evangelical" I replied. "But...not like they are."
When I arrived in Nandasmo, I discovered a major difference between my own practices and those of the family. They don't celebrate Christmas. "Christmas is whenever Jesus is born in your heart," the mother, Anita, explained to me. "It's not on the 25th of December." As lovely as this sentiment is, I suspect the lack of Christmas celebration also arises from the fact that evangelical identity in Nicaragua is forged to a great extent by differentiating themselves from the Catholics. If the Catholics do it, the evangelicals try not to.
It's true that the date for Christmas, from a strictly biblical standpoint, is arbitrary. However, it's nice to have a period of every year designated for reflection on the meaning of God made flesh, born a poor child in a little town. I said as much to Anita, whose response is recorded in my memory as something like, "Hey man, whatevs." I also like the cyclical nature of the liturgical year, which end-times focused evangelical theology tends to lack. All in all, the Christian calendar may just be another Papist heresy, but I'll keep it anyway.
As it happens, Anita and Donald are Nandasmo's major distributors of the traditional Christmas fireworks and other devices that make lots of noise. Thus, I spent Christmas Eve selling explosive materials to small children. Or, more accurately, I spent Christmas Eve assisting Anita's 10-year-old grandson Marcelo, who knew the prices and the merchandise much better than I. I took a brief excursion to the Catholic church up the street, where they put on a Christmas pageant. One of the innkeepers was dressed as a Roman soldier, and I suppose the costume defines the character, as he said in a booming, authoritative voice: "NO! THERE IS NO ROOM HERE! YOU MUST LEAVE NOW!" The pageant also featured a real donkey, which is pretty easy to come by in small-town Nicaragua. It is not so easy, it turns out, to get it to leave the stage on cue. Mary and Joseph had to do a little extra wandering in Egypt before they could get the donkey offstage.
I may not have sang the Christmas hymns, or lit the candles, or ate sugar cookies, but leave it to the semi-ridiculous, semi-mediocre and fully amazing children's Christmas pageant to catch up to me in Nicaragua. They're a cross cultural wonder.
During the week I was in Nandasmo, we were preparing for the visit of a group from a Baptist sister church in Ann Arbor. The family had little plaques to give as gifts. Unfortunately, many of them featured saints and other Catholic-ish images that just wouldn't do for a group of Baptists. We went through and sorted out the overly Catholic ones. There were several cross-shaped plaques that featured Jesus on the cross in the middle, with images from his life in the corners. "Not those," said Anita. "I don't like those."
As we sat tending the "ammunitions warehouse," as they called it, I asked her why she didn't like the crosses. They didn't feature anything extra-Biblical, which is usually the reference point for what's acceptable and what isn't. She explained to me:
"In Corinthians, it says a death on a cross is a cursed one. Why such focus on Jesus' death? Jesus isn't dead; Jesus is alive. He's alive inside us. If your son or your loved one was shot by a gun, would you carry around a symbol of a gun? It doesn't make sense."
I immediately began to regret my words to my friend: "Not like them." I regretted it again when I joked about the lingering cough that I had, saying "I guess God is punishing me." "No, God doesn't do that," Anita responded. "God loves us." Though we may have differing views on the value of a Christmas holiday, Anita's theology and mine are strikingly similar. When she preaches in her little church, invoking the God who gives sight to the blind and releases the captives, I get goosebumps. I have come to see her as one of the women ministers who guide me towards a better understanding of my own ministry on this earth.
I left Nandasmo on December 27, feeling rested and fulfilled. I returned to Managua to reunite with the volunteers who are working there. That evening, I went with Kate to a Mass at the Batahola Norte Cultural Center. It was a misa campesina, or a Mass developed to specifically focus on the reality of rural, poor Nicaraguan agrarian workers. The chapel area, open to the outdoors on three sides, featured a large mural on the one wall. In the center was a brown-skinned baby Jesus in the manger. Surrounding him, the Nicaraguan farm workers offered the baby the gifts of their harvest: wheat and watermelons and other foods. Among the admirers looking upon the infant Christ were Che Guevara, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Cesar Chavez, and Augusto Sandino. As Kate explained, the mural also featured the likenesses of several women who had been leaders in the struggle for justice in the local community. The bright colors of the mural glowed with a radiant joy and pride in the rich traditions of the Nicaraguan campo.
The priest preached on the model of the family offered to us in the Bible, one where everyone has their place and their own rights to dignity, even the chidren. He spoke of how Jesus required the love and care of his parents in order to become the savior and prophet he was. At the end of the homily, he invited the congregation to offer their reflections. An elderly American man, a former Capuchin who fell in love and married a Nicaraguan, leaving the order and settling in Managua, responded enthusiastically about Jesus' comments that those who do the will of God in heaven are his mother and brothers. He said that Jesus was challenging the notion that the will of the parents was most important, even more important than a sense of call.
The choir was stunningly gorgeous, singing Latin American Christmas hymns that I'd never heard before but touched me in the same way the so-familiar carols from home do. They sang:
"They expected a warrior, but peace was his war.
They expected a king, but serving was his reigning.
They expected a strong man, but he came a baby.
They're coming and going to Bethlehem by pathways of joy.
Christ is born in everyone who gives themselves to others.
They're coming and going to Bethlehem by pathways of justice.
In Bethlehem the people are born when they learn to fight."
I normally don't like Mass. I perpetually feel like an outsider. But this church so reminded me of my churches back home in its intimacy and liberation focus, I felt a part of my heart open up that had toughened over during my time here. I haven't found a church in Bilwi that feeds me, where I don't have to wrench inspiration out by force. I realized how much I missed a church community, and absorbed as much of its warmth as I possibly could.
This Christmas, I found much-needed theological inspiration in evangelicals and spiritual nourishment in Catholic Mass, two places I don't normally look for inspiration and nourishment. Christ came into the manger of my heart in an unexpected way this Christmas, as he did so many years ago in Bethlehem. Had I not relinquished my grasp on the traditions I hold so dear, I might never have found him.