On a trip to the diocese of Gallup the week before Advent, I witnessed something that will stay with me during this season of preparation for Christ’s birth. It was an experience of great reverence for the Christ child, a living instance of what the carol exhorts us to do: O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord. It was the story of the nativity, embedded within an ancient and beautiful culture that nurtured its faith even when the institutional Church was absent.
Gallup is a massive diocese spanning two states, New Mexico and Arizona. For many years, Catholic Extension has served this region and its several Indian reservations, all of which have traditions that have come down from time immemorial. To this day, these nations retain religious and cultural practices handed down to them by their ancestors: prayers, dances, celebrations rooted in the land, its gifts, and their participation in a cosmic mystery of time and season. On one of the reservations, for example, a group of young people clad in traditional dress danced as part of the offertory of the Mass. In such a context, the dance represented the ways that they offered back to God the cultural gifts handed on to them by their ancestors.
The Church’s presence in this reason stretches back over 400 years, to the time when Spanish Franciscan missionaries braved long, lonely rides on horseback to remote Indian villages sometimes hostile to the presence of foreigners. Sadly, the natives’ fears were sometimes realized: for while some missionaries were truly men of the gospel, others took advantage of the native population and used their religious devotion for personal advantage.
A structure in Acoma Pueblo in the Diocese of Gallup
One example was that of the Acoma people, whose pueblo on a mesa high above the desert floor had been inhabited for at least 500 years before the arrival of the Spaniards. The Franciscans came to a place already rich in tradition and religious practice. This self-sustaining community at first welcomed the missionaries, such that by 1629 Father Juan Ramirez was able to persuade the Acoma to begin construction of a massive, fortress-like church, hauling timber and dirt from 40 miles away. But several decades later, during the 1680 Pueblo revolt, they rebelled against a profligate priest who had killed one of their youths. Upon learning of the crime, they subdued him and threw him off the mesa.
Remarkably, during the following years when there was no priest present in the pueblo, they retained their Catholic practices, even using the Latin prayers they had learned and inscribing the retablo with transliterated Latin words. The story of the Word made flesh had captivated them, and the church in which they could worship their creator was by this time a place sacred to them. Traditional practices and Catholic worship grew side-by-side, and continue to do so to this day.
A group of students of St. Anthony’s School in Zuni, New Mexico, perform a native dance during the offertory of the Mass.
My guide at Acoma was the former pastor, who spoke about his first Advent at the pueblo. He described their invitation to join them in the midnight Mass on Christmas eve. He was perplexed by this invitation, since as pastor it was he who should be the celebrant. But they were referring to the celebration of the Christ child which had entered into their cultural practice, and which they had sustained for centuries even during the many decades without a priest present. The Christ child was, in the truest sense, the creator-God who had come to live among us, and the ritual memory of this gift was a window into the divine life.
Later that day, while speaking with the Franciscan who serves as pastor of the nearby Laguna pueblo, he remarked that ritual practice is like an entrance into the spirit-world: it offers a community a time outside of time, where the divine lives. I thought back to that description of midnight Mass—a ritual celebration of the Incarnation—and imagined that what it meant was a return to that seminal event, a ritual return to the place where the veil between divine and human life was pierced by the birth of a baby.
Stained glass window detail from Sacred Heart Cathedral, Gallup, New Mexico
At Acoma, we had met a member of the community who proudly showed us around the church and spoke about their Christmas celebration of the Christ child. Later, she asked us: “do you want to see him?” This was the year when her family was charged with caring for him, and so she walked us over to her home. In the back bedroom, just above the bed, she carefully picked up a small object swaddled in a hand-woven blanket. She cradled it in her arms, speaking softly, and opened the blanket to reveal a face not unlike the style of a kachina. But what struck me was less the image of the child, and more the reverence with which she held it: an attitude of adoration that she communicated by her body language and speech. We found ourselves blessing both the child and ourselves, standing in the presence of the holy.
Tim Muldoon, Ph.D., is the director of mission education at Catholic Extension.