By Cecilia González-Andrieu
Professor of Theology and Theological Aesthetics
“Sigue mi dedo, mira, allí. ¿La ves? ¡Esa estrella que brilla mucho!” (Just follow my finger, right there. Do you see it? It’s a very bright star!) My 6-year-old sister tried to obey my instructions, but I’m not sure she could see what I saw. I was well trained by my Abuela Lolita, an accomplished musician and my first teacher in the faith, to notice the world and everything in it. I knew there was an abundance of signs and wonders all around me, witnessing to a reality that was always revealing deeper layers of God’s graced presence.
This particular January evening (saved like a fragile ornament of the finest crystal) begins with my determined scrutiny of the night sky over La Habana. That night, everything that would later shatter into pieces for my family, was still whole. I was looking over my beloved neighborhood, marveling at the glittering mix of buildings, each window a promise of joy and intriguing stories. And just past it, there, to the right of our small balcony, was the impenetrable blackness of the ocean beyond the lights of the malecón. As a first grader and geography enthusiast, I knew there were people on the other side of that sea, in a place called la Florida. It made my heart warm to think that just then they might be looking back toward us. I loved the enigma of it all, the stars, the ocean, the far away people, the many connecting points that made reality sacred.
My eyes fixed on the star; I told my sister the story as I understood it. That was the Christmas Star, I explained. On Jan. 5, the star grew even brighter because the Reyes Magos (the Magi Kings) were preparing for their journey. During their first journey, they had traveled following the star until it stopped right above where Maria and José were taking care of their new little baby, Jesús. And they brought him gifts, because that’s what you do when you are both a king and magical. Something about Jesús was so special that everyone from the reyes to the shepherds brought him regalos. I recalled the song from our church Christmas pageant, held a few nights before in the basement under the cloister and behind our impregnable church walls. Years later, I would understand this was a secret celebration, away from the eyes of the police state that did not tolerate Christmas observances and eventually banned them. As a small child, all I knew was that the song was beautiful and that night, as many since, I sang it to myself clapping my hands to the catchy rhythm:
Los niños de Cuba vienen, hacia Belén,
para adorar y cantarle al niño Rey.
Le traen flores de aguinaldo y de café,
le traen caña de azúcar
y rica miel.
Cuba’s children are coming, to Bethlehem,
to pay homage and sing to the child King.
They bring him the flowers of Christmas and of coffee,
they bring him sugar cane
and tasty honey.
What is most wondrous, I told my sister as I did one of my happy dances, is that the reyes magos are on their way to us tonight! At midnight, in all of the houses where there are little children like us, the reyes will come bringing them gifts! Just like Jesús, they will remember us. Later that night we would sneak down the stairs when it was still dark to find the small gifts and the evidence of a sacred visit that told us the love of God still filled the world.
In the decades since that night, other memories also persist within me. The nights of crying several years later when my parents explained we would have to go to la Florida and leave everything behind. I learned to carry the persistent open wound of the refugee, unexpectedly thrust into an unknown world. Yet, there was Jesús again to keep us company. His mother and father escaping with him to another country, crossing borders and leaving their home to keep him safe. As time passed, I learned to read the story of the reyes magos more deeply. To see how the journey of those well-meaning wise people had come close to revealing Jesus’ whereabouts. How Jesus’ life had begun in the turmoil of political powers who feared his Jewish community and their burning hope for a better world.
Our reality is both wounded and graced, or better yet, our lives are graced because God’s presence is revealed in our wounds. When our illusion of invulnerability shatters it can make room for God’s closeness. The reyes magos make the journey to Jesus precisely because he is one of the millions of vulnerable, persecuted and displaced people around the world. The gifts then and now can be meaningful if they tell us that we are loved and remembered. The nights are most full of stars when we make room for the darkness and allow our eyes to seek them.
That eve of the Epiphany I remembered our hand-drawn image of an empty manger tacked up on the wall. The manger had been filling up with scribbles in yellow crayon, each one awarded by our parents and grandparents for our good deeds. We had been making the manger comfortable for Jesus to come by being the kind of people Jesus wanted us to be, but we knew a manger was not ever comfortable and he needed a proper bed, and a home, and for his family to not have to be afraid.
The wounds of our world are many this Feast of the Reyes Magos. In every refugee child, in every sick bed, in every person who has nowhere to lay his head, Jesus appears, fragile in his straw manger, waiting for us to be the reyes and to bring our gifts. Go outside, look at the night sky, find a glittering star, and feel God’s sacred reality envelop you in its beauty. And then, gather your gifts and go out from yourself to find the ones who need you.