I went to a quinceaniera once for a former student. In the Méxican tradition, when a girl turns fifteen, parents hold a quinceaniera, from the Spanish word for fifteen, quince. The tradition actually goes back to the Aztec culture, in which it was considered that young men and women became adults at that age. I guess having a life span of about thirty years makes you grow up fast. This was a quinceaniera for one of my former students.
The ceremony is a coming out of sorts. In the past, it was used as a “coming out” for young women, to make known to the men of the community that the girl was now available to court, with marriage the ultimate goal. It is very much in appearance like a wedding. The young lady generally wears a white gown. She is escorted by consorts, several young men and women, much like bridesmaids and groomsmen. There is a Mass said in the church. And afterwards, there is a fabulous party, with dancing and food and drink. Mariachi bands are hired. There are a number of traditions. Godparents present the young lady with a bible and a rosary. The young lady, known as the quinceaniera, dances one last dance as a child with her father. She gives one of her old toys to a sibling as a symbol of the end of childhood. It is all quite beautiful, really.
This one was different, however. When we arrived at the church, we found it beautifully decorated, as is usually the case. There were lovely spring flowers on every pew. There were beautiful garlands of white and red. There was a chair, covered in white satin, in front of the sanctuary, on which the young lady would sit. We sat and waited for the church to fill. It never did. There were less than a dozen people there to see the young lady dedicate herself to God.
Then the service began. The party entered, much like a wedding. First came the escorts, then came the parents. Next came the god parents, the madrinos. And then finally, came the quinceaniera herself, in a beautiful blue gown. They all took their places and the priest began the Mass. “En el nombre del Padre, el Hijo, y el Spiritu Santo.” He began the prayer. He then asked the parents if the girl had made her first communion, as most Catholic children do at seven or so. She hadn’t. The priest was not pleased. He said nothing, but you could tell by his countenance he was not happy. As the Mass wore on, he had to tell the people when to stand, when to sit, and when to kneel. There was no one there to do the readings, so he had to do them himself.
As I looked around, I was struck by the tragedy of it all. Here was a lovely church, beautifully decorated. Here were the escorts in the lovely gowns and tuxedos. The quinceaniera stood there in her beautiful gown. But the church was empty, and so was the ceremony. It was obvious that these people were not regular churchgoers. They didn’t even know what to do and when. The young lady herself, was years past the time for her first communion. They were in the church this day out of formality, because it’s what you do. But the ceremony meant nothing to them. Was this girl going to dedicate herself to a God she did not even know?
"I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
A hired man, who is not a shepherd
and whose sheep are not his own,
sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away,
and the wolf catches and scatters them.
This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd,
and I know mine and mine know me,
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father;
and I will lay down my life for the sheep.
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice,
and there will be one flock, one shepherd.
This is why the Father loves me,
because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.
No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own.
I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again.
This command I have received from my Father." (John, Chapter 10, 11-18)
Now maybe Jesus said this or not. Maybe this never even happened. Regardless, what it shows is absolute rejection. This story takes place near the end of his ministry. Prior to saying this, he was rejected by the Pharisees. Directly after this, he would be rejected by the people he said he came to save. He would be tortured and executed. And, according to John, he knew this—at least according to the story. So here Jesus is, saying that he is going to be laying down his life for his sheep. He will be giving his life so that they may have life. And almost to steel his resolve, he reminds himself that he is doing this of his own free will.
Up until Jesus, the religion of the people was all about death. Sacrifices were offered at the temple. There was death in the house of God every day. According to the beliefs of the Jews, death entered into the world because of the sins of Adam and Eve. Jesus came to teach that God was not about death. God is about life. Jesus said he came to offer life, and life more abundant. Jesus taught that God is not a big, scary, imaginary king in the sky, someone to punish you for your failures, but a loving parent who promises to give you all you need.
If the Christian faith were just about Jesus dying for our sins, then he would have stayed up on that cross. But the Christian faith is about life, and living life to its fullest. We are not condemned. We are not a bunch of miserable sinners. We are the children of God, the brothers and sisters of Christ, each of us a temple of the holy spirit in the most real way, not just in a churchly way. The point of the story is not that he died on a cross, but that he walked out of a tomb.
Jesus healed the blind. All around us we see the spiritually blind, wandering aimlessly, missing the glories of creation all around them. We see others run after strange gods, worn out rituals that don’t express the gift Christ came to give. We see others wrapped in their power and position which their wealth gives. We live in a world scarred by violence, violence of every kind. Jesus knew us because he was us. Jesus knew what it was to fail, to feel rejection. He showed us that the key to life was to love, to love with all our hearts.
He is still rejected, even by those of his own fold. They decorate his churches. They go through the motions. The pews are often filled. But many of his followers are still blind. They say the prayers, but do not feel the spirit. Today, a girl read a prayer dedicating her life to God in empty syllables that held no meaning for her. Her family accepted the church, but rejected its source.
Others, the children of God, are rejected by churches that seem to feel them not worthy to be a part of the flock. They are the outcasts, the sinners, the homosexuals, the women who have had abortions, the drug addicts, the alcoholics, the Protestants, the Catholics, the Hindus, the Muslims; the whoever doesn’t fit the image of that particular faith. This is the saddest injustice of all, that the believers in God would try to withhold that divine spirit from anybody.
In the end, this is a message of hope. Jesus does not say that any of his sheep are lost. He says we are one flock. There is no one cast out. He says that we will hear his voice. We cannot be separated from God. As the Zen Buddhists, the Taoists, and the Hindus know already, any separation from God that we feel is pure illusion. God is with us, even now. That was the prophecy, “And he shall be called Emmanuel.” Emmanuel means, “God is with us.”
God was there in that church today, there in the love those parents felt for their daughter, there in the few people who did come to be with her on this special day. It is my prayer that one day, she will open her eyes and heart to the love that is all around her. This is my prayer for the world. For on that day we open our hearts to the love of God, we will open the gates to Eden and come home.