Since last Sunday, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans have been celebrating Las Posadas, a nightly celebration of Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging in Bethlehem. Each night, people dressed as Mary and Joseph, or statues representing them, lead a procession to homes or churches where they ask for lodging (“posada” is Spanish for “lodging”). In some celebrations the procession is turned away at several houses before being welcomed at the designated home for the night, whereas in a shorter version the group is welcomed into a single home after at first being turned away. Once inside, the people pray together, sing Christmas songs, and share a meal.

The custom of Las Posadas seems to be based on a bit of a pious fiction, as Luke’s account of Mary and Joseph’s arrival in Bethlehem does not suggest that the couple were denied lodging out of ill will or inhospitality. Luke reports that the reason Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem in the first place was because they were required to do so as part of the census mandated by the Roman Emperor Augustus, so there were likely many more visitors in Bethlehem than usual. This experience is entirely relatable; for part of our honeymoon, my wife and I visited Quebec City, which by coincidence was celebrating its 400th anniversary, and as a result all of the hotels in the city were booked and we were forced to stay in Ste-Anne-de-Beaupré, twenty miles away. Scholars point out, however, that the Greek word usually translated as “inn” in Luke 2:7 is probably better translated as “guest room,” meaning that Mary and Joseph sought lodging in the guest room of relatives only to find that it was already occupied. It is entirely possible that Mary and Joseph were denied lodging in this guest room for other reasons, perhaps out of shame at the unusual circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy described in Matthew’s Gospel, but Luke is silent on this matter.

Even if the inhospitality of Bethlehem is a pious addition to the narrative of the Nativity, it is one consistent with the overall theology of the Gospels. Instead of an infancy narrative, the Gospel of John provides a poem about the Word of God which includes the lines: “He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him” (John 1:10-11). Jesus is rejected or betrayed by “his own people,” whether it is Joseph’s relatives in Bethlehem, the people of his hometown Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30), his closest disciples, or the people of Israel, yet these more specific and local rejections are symptoms of the more universal rejection of Jesus by “the world.” Here we see an illustration of the mystery of the Incarnation; the world’s rejection of the entrance of the divine into the world is manifest in the very human betrayal of Jesus by friends and family.

This same Incarnational mystery, Jesus’ full humanity and divinity, is embodied in Las Posadas. Las Posadas reminds us that we must welcome God into our lives. Those seeking welcome sing, in the voice of Joseph, “Mi esposa es Maria, es reina del cielo, y madre va a ser, del Divino Verbo” (“My wife is Mary, the Queen of Heaven, and is going to be the mother of the Divine Word”), making clear that it is not just poor travelers who are seeking hospitality, but bearers of the divine presence. We are the innkeepers who must overcome our sleepiness and suspicion in order to recognize that presence. God’s grace is something we must await and receive with joy: “Gird your loins and light your lamps and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks” (Luke 12:35-36). This is the significance of the Advent season, the expectation of the divine gift.

Yet Las Posadas does not shy away from the very human reality of Jesus, Joseph, and Mary. The singers, speaking as Joseph, say, “En nombre del cielo, os pido posada, pues no puede andar, mi esposa amada” (“In the name of heaven, I ask you for lodging, since my beloved wife cannot walk”). Later they sing: “Venimos rendidos, desde Nazaret, yo soy carpintero, de nombre José” (We come exhausted from Nazareth; I am a carpenter named Joseph”). This last verse humanizes Joseph by filling out the details of his life, and both verses illustrate Mary and Joseph’s human frailty—their exhaustion from travel and Mary’s weakness from her pregnancy. Those seeking lodging appeal to the innkeeper’s humanity: “No seas inhumano, tennos caridad, que el Rey de los cielos, te lo premiará” (“Do not be inhumane; grant us charity, so that the King of Heaven will reward you for it”). Las Posadas also reminds its participants of the very human welcoming of new life; Mary’s pregnancy is mirrored in the nine days of Posadas in which the participants are brought to new life.

Las Posadas reminds us that not only must we welcome God into our lives, but we should receive our neighbors as welcome guests, as well. This is most obvious in our call to live out what Catholic social teaching calls the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable: we must provide hospitality to immigrants, the unemployed, the homeless, the unborn, etc., rather than drowsily ignoring them or seeing them as a threat to our own well-being. Yet seeing our neighbor as someone to be welcomed has broader implications for how we relate to one another. We tend to define human relationships in terms of mutual self-interest or rights and responsibilities. Although these considerations have their place, they also allow us to keep our distance from one another as persons. As the Catholic moral theologian David McCarthy points out, truly human community is built only when we become open to the ways that welcoming people re-arranges our lives. It requires us to accept people tramping through our house and eating our food. It requires us to accept that marriage to a spouse means that we will have to make sacrifices and change our habits.

Christianity’s Incarnational faith teaches us that welcoming God and welcoming our neighbor are really two sides of the same coin. Recognizing the presence of God in our neighbor leads us welcome that neighbor into our lives, and the sometimes chaotic re-arranging of our lives brought about by the welcoming of new companions provides an opening for divine grace. Las Posadas is a religious practice that reminds us of our own call to welcome both the divine and the human.