Fr. Leo and I trudged slowly and steadily up the street that ended at the foothills of the mighty Andes, late at night. The stars glittered in the warm summer sky as if anticipating a surprise, shimmering in excitement.
We were returning home from Christmas Eve Mass for all seven chapel communities, a single outdoor celebration held for the entire parish family in front of the main church of Peñalolén, San Marcos, on the eastern edge of Santiago, Chile. After the colorful, prolonged liturgy, full of song and folk dances that rejoiced in the birth of the Awaited One, Fr. Leo and I joined the other priests, Brothers, Sisters and lay leaders for a festive toast with soda and cake, exchanging “Secret Santa” gifts (called Amigo Secreto in Chile) at the nearby rectory.
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We lived a good mile from the church, however—and all steeply uphill. The Columbans had proposed sending two priests to an “unevangelized” area a year earlier, to live far from any established chapel or parish center, in order to establish a new community from the ground up, among people who seldom went to church or, perhaps, knew little of the Gospel.
Fr. Leo and I chose to rent a small house on the fringe of a densely-populated working-class neighborhood—a población of flimsy wooden homes and do-it-yourself electrical lines running along rickety poles and tree branches. In the nine months we had lived there, the neighbors had welcomed us and visited us often. Their children loved to sit around our door, and we often served cups of tea on the hot afternoons to their parents, who would stop by for long conversations.
But we also helped the chapels and parish center communities, too, with Sunday Masses and occasional guidance for youth groups and classes for sacramental preparation. Our legs grew muscular from all the climbing uphill and downhill, although we marveled at the elderly residents and their strength as they returned from shopping at the local outdoor markets downhill, carrying heavy bags up the same streets we huffed and puffed on.
Our neighbors, we were sure, were probably well into their own Christmas block party, as we made our way home. They had asked us to contribute to the party as well a few days earlier. There would be grilled meat for everyone and gifts for all the kids on our street. It was a shame that we would be arriving so late for our first Christmas as neighbors, we felt.
Everything looked festive as we arrived, with colored lights mingled with garlands of tinsel hanging over the street. An empty lot was filled with tables and chairs, bottles of wine and soft drinks stood at one side. The chef for the evening stood guard near the grill. The children saw us coming from far away, and began shouting, “They’re here! They’re here!” It was a nice welcome—but then I realized why they were so excited.
Our neighbors weren’t eating or dancing at all, yet! Everyone had waited for us! No gifts offered to the children, no refreshments opened, until all our neighbors were present—including the two of us, the last ones to arrive.
I was moved to realize that this was more a deep gesture of friendship and neighborliness than of any regard for us as priests.
As hugs and Christmas greetings were shared, I realized that Fr. Leo and I weren’t starting from scratch. Good Christian values were already part of life here, and were lived out in a way that humbled both of us. We were the ones evangelized that Christmas Eve.
Advent means waiting until everyone’s there. Jesus often spoke of waiting—waiting for the bridegroom to show up to his party, waiting without falling asleep, waiting with our lamps lit, expectant, alert.
“They’re here! They’re here!” The shout goes up, as the Awaited One and his friends appear on the scene, into the arms of a community ready to receive them.
What community are we a part of? How does Christ come to us? Do we wait, with joy and expectation, for those still far away, exiled, lonely? Are we always incomplete, until all are welcomed?
We all partied until the sky behind the Andes lightened on Christmas morning.