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The Incarnation at Casa Juan Diego: The Mystery of the Birth of Jesus

Catherine, a Catholic Worker at Casa Juan Diego and a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, was formerly a Catholic Worker at Andre House in Phoenix.

by Ade Bethune

The Incarnation, God fully immersing Himself in the midst of our messy, messy lives, is a constant source of wonder for me. How marvelous that our God knows through experience the sorrows and joys that make up our days. Sometimes, though, it’s easy to forget God’s close identification and sharing in our lives. The rosary, of all prayers, brings me back to this truth. As a child I thought it was long and repetitious, and it put me to sleep. The rosary, though isn’t about reciting innumerable Hail Mary’s, but rather is a walk through Jesus’ life through meditating on the Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious Mysteries (to which the Pope has recently added the mysteries of light). In these God’s love for us and identification with us is brought to light.

Each mystery, or event in the lives of Jesus and Mary, inevitably has a link to what is happening in our own lives, and that of our loved ones. I find here at Casa Juan Diego, though, an especially powerful connection between Jesus’ life and those of our guests that both humbles me and fills me with awe. And so, in this time of Advent’s hopeful expectation and Christmas’ joyous celebration of “God with us,” I thought I would meditate on the rosary mysteries surrounding the birth of Jesus and how it is being manifested to me here, today, in a little building in the middle of Houston.

The Annunciation: “Hail, the Lord is with you.” These were the words with which the angel Gabriel greeted Mary. A priest once spoke in a homily about how every day our guardian angel whispers this same salutation in our ears. In my time with our guests, it is quite obvious the Lord is with them. It’s a new experience to attend Mass with them Wednesday nights and listen to the Gospel. It’s as if Jesus were talking directly to them-the connection of His words and life to theirs is so direct, so profound. In studying theology and in my faith life I like to search for the symbolism and hidden meaning in Jesus’ words, sometimes going through mental gymnastics to come up with a way that the Gospel applies to my life (or maybe to soften or avoid its mandate). I’m not saying there’s not a great depth or many levels to Scripture, but how powerful it is to simply take Jesus’ words at face value because the people have lived them.

I’m learning, too, that to live and work here I need to adopt more the attitude of Mary in the Annunciation, relinquishing control and being open to God’s will. Every day I have plans and projects to accomplish, and inevitably other things come up or I’m interrupted any number of times by the phone and door and guests in the house. I can get irritated at these disruptions and the constant running to and fro. Numerous times as I’ve walked, grumbling, to the door, it’s as if an angel whispers, “The Lord is with you, behind that door.” I’m reminded of why I’m here, of our mission of living Matthew 25. In these moments, what can I do but try to say as Mary did, “I am the servant of the Lord, be it done unto me according to your will,” open the door and receive Christ.

The Visitation: There are delightful, surprising, meaning-ful encounters or conversations I sometimes have with others where, really, the only way I can describe it is that our Spirits touched-the joy is tangible and my heart feels too small to contain it all. After such an experience I often think it’s the work of the Holy Spirit, and I am reminded of the Visitation and of that Spirit-filled exchange between Mary and Elizabeth (and Jesus and John). Several weeks ago a short and simple incident invoked this imagery for me. A frightened, abused woman and her two small children came to us in a cab. I cannot say I know the driver’s ethnicity or religion, but he looked Middle Eastern and wore some type of turban on his head. As I filled out and gave him a voucher for his service, he turned around and gave money back to me. He said he was touched by the family in their difficult situation and appreciated the way we were trying to help. He told me he didn’t have much money but wanted to aid us in our work and he pressed two $5 bills into my hand. I felt like I had received the widow’s mite, that the value of his gift couldn’t be measured. This all happened when the daily headlines were of the president threatening war with Iraq (which he still is), Congress approving it, the growing climate of distrust, and divisions of “us” and “them,” all of which left me frustrated and discouraged.

Standing against that was this incident, with three different people from three different countries and cultures, who met and, in a small way, had this experience of openness toward one another that allowed for some kind of mutual giving and receiving. It probably sounds like I am blowing a simple cab ride out of proportion and reading way too much into it, but truly the words that came to me after it happened were “our spirits kissed.” Just as Elizabeth and her unborn child were moved by the Spirit to know of Christ’s presence at the mere greeting of Mary, so I know that in those brief moments, with few words exchanged, our hearts were enlarged and united by the Holy Spirit. (Incidentally, the woman and her children are still with us, and the mutual sharing continues, with the Workers providing food and shelter-hopefully with love-and this family gifting us by their quiet, kind, and sincere ways.)

The Birth of Jesus: Growing up, a special part of Christmas was all the Nativity scenes we had around the house from all different parts of the world. The birth of Christ does make for a beautiful image, with awe-filled parents hovering over the new life, animals crowding around, and shepherds and kings bowed in wonder and worship. We create from that, though, this cozy, neat little picture. A priest once said that during Christmas he is tempted to sneak in the church and scatter manure around the manger scene to remind us of the messy reality that is the Incarnation. It’s true. It’s not as simple and clean as we like to make it. Jesus’ conception involved a young, unwed mother. His parents were temporarily homeless when he was born. Then, amidst threats of violence, they had to flee everything familiar and undergo a long, exhausting journey with a small child to live as refugees in Egypt, a land and culture they did not know.

Basically, all our guests at the women’s House of Hospitality can relate to this story: women single and pregnant, living and bearing children in dwellings no better than a barn. And, of course, they know all to well the pain and peril of leaving their homeland and loved ones, and the insecurity of living in a foreign land for the sake of protecting their children, not necessarily from the violence of the sword, but from that of hunger and poverty. I can’t imagine the desperation these women felt in their countries nor the loneliness they feel here. But Jesus knows and understands. He lived it. That is what we celebrate at Christmas-the mad and crazy love of our God, who became totally vulnerable to be with us, identify with us, love us, save us. I have a feeling spending Christmas at Casa Juan Diego may not be the most comfortable and cozy, but I just may be closer to that little stable in Bethlehem than ever before.
Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXII, No. 7, December 2002.