MILWAUKIE — In the kitchen, Cuco Herrera is deftly ladling hot chocolate into cups. Other volunteers rush the sweet drink to a room full of worshipers.
It’s a posada, a Mexican Catholic devotion in memory of Mary and Joseph’s search for a place to stay in Bethlehem. A posada, Spanish for “lodging,” covers nine days leading to Christmas including scripture reading, prayer and re-enactment. Every session ends in a communal gathering accented by treats.
Faith, community and food — it’s all of a piece in the posada, which sometimes includes the faithful dressed as Mary, Joseph, the innkeeper and angels.
“We are trying to keep it alive for our kids,” says Herrera, whose own son is helping serve pink cake.
Herrera explains that, as a child in Mexico, he was most interested in the treats. But the story of the holy couple also came through as he and his family marched and sang from house to house. Herrera knows the same dynamic is at work today. Jack Villa Lopez, 10, and Rosse Villa Lopez, 8, members of St. John, confirm the fact. This brother and sister say their favorite part of posada is candy.
But right in front of them on this day, St. John parishioner Silvino Pacheco explains for the crowd how early Christians enacted parts of the gospels. The posada is heir to that tradition, he Pacheco says. He then reads part of the gospel. In a truncated family-friendly version of the posada on this day, the crowd stands at the door of the parish center and sings a traditional song in which Joseph and Mary ask for a room, only to be turned away. After a few times, the couple finds a door that will let them in. Everyone follows and settles in for a repast that includes tamales as well as sweets. Franciscan Father Jorge Hernandez, pastor of St. John, recalls the posadas of his boyhood. Carry candles, children would lead a procession around the neighborhood, sometimes with statues of Mary and Joseph.
The literal journey of Mary and Joseph reflects a figurative trek and search for every Christian.
“We are called to pray and be prepared,” Father Hernandez says. “We listen to the words from the gospel and know we need again to let Jesus be born in our midst.” Leticia Chavez, Hispanic ministry coordinator at St. John the Baptist, says posadas are a major part of Hispanic culture. Dramas were essential when most people could not read the gospels themselves, she says.
Today, says Chavez, the nine days of prayer and celebration serve as a religious counterpoint to the commercial frenzy that precedes Dec. 25. She sums it up: “Posada plays a role of reminding us about faith at a time when all kinds of people are shopping.”