It is hard to believe that just about forty-eight hours ago I was praying in the Catholic Church in the town square of Cozumel, Mexico. I have been enjoying an all-too-brief sojourn on the Celebrity Cruise Lines “Constellation,” whose itinerary included that great favorite port of cruise line aficionados, shoppers, and partiers. The vendors in the downtown area offer everything from iced buckets of beer (6 bottles for $15), over-the-counter medications that require prescriptions in the United States, and traditional native handiwork such as shawls and blankets decorated with the name and team colors of the Iowa State Cyclones and the Edmonton Oilers, among others.
But generally it is all in good fun and even some of the very senior travelers on our ship made their way by cab or carriage from the International Port to downtown Cozumel. Margaret and I walked back and forth, and enjoyed the shade of a sidewalk cantina on the city square…though our grand purchase of two Diet Cokes did not add appreciably to the local economy. I have been there three times now, but I had yet to visit the local Catholic Church, something I try to do on my travels.
Actually there are three churches on the island of Cozumel, which sits about ten miles off the mainland of Mexico and the mother diocese of Campeche. The downtown church is St. Michael’s, which we had time to visit. It is a small church but evidently an active one, as people stopped to pray alongside of us during our visit. The edifice is a triumph of piety over liturgical directives, chock full of statues and pictures and objects of devotion. A portrait of St. John Paul II hung serenely with St. Cecelia and her lute (or the future King David; I couldn’t tell for sure.) There is a local custom whereby the faithful insert little photos of loved ones who have died or who need prayers.
Margaret and I took illicit delight in the church’s Christmas decorations. No Advent austerity here; in front of the main altar was a grand nativity stable scene, and colored Christmas lights abounded. We surmised that the crèche had been donated by worshippers over many years, because everything was out of scale. The shepherds stood like miniature chess pieces while ox and ass were disturbingly close to life-size, posed like King Kongs on a rampage of New York. But all was tranquil and prayerful, if liturgically premature. The manger was absent the baby Jesus, who would make a solemn entry at Midnight Mass, as I have seen in other Hispanic settings. I felt that our time at St. Michael’s was one of the highlights of our trip (the other being the blessing of the Holy Year door at St. Mary’s in Key West on Sunday, which we were fortunate to celebrate last Sunday in our first port shop.)
Ironically I had tucked into my suitcase a copy of Gerald R. Cragg’s The Church and the Age of Reason 1648-1789. This is one of the Penguin History of the Church Volumes that I had failed to read when it was first assigned to me in 1971. Cragg gives an overview of Western Christianity from the end of the bloody religious wars that wracked so much of the continent, up through the French Revolution. Simply summarized, he discusses the trend among thinkers, theologians, and artists of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to reinvent religion, so to speak, away from the passions of unbridled faith and fervor that had marked the post Reformation era, and toward a “worship of reason” that, in their view, would protect good order and exalt the best of the human mind.
The curious thing in this era is that the intellectuals were never quite able to reestablish religious life along the lines of good order and rational restraint. Many Roman Catholics in France, for example, disturbed the Jesuits and the royal court with a hunger for an extreme form of piety and unpredictability known as Jansenism. Perhaps better known, because of its impact upon English and American Colonial Protestantism was the great revival wrought by the preaching of George Whitfield and John Wesley, what we know today as “Methodism.”
My visit to Cozumel was a healthy reminder that the Christian experience is about the head and the heart. As I knelt in the company of other visitors to St. Michael’s, I did bring my theological experience to bear. I reflected upon the fact that the two “infancy narratives” provided by St. Matthew and St. Luke were not written as historical documentation of Jesus’ birth. No, each of the two Christmas narratives is, in the words of the late Father Raymond Brown, a predictive passion narrative. There is little in the Gospels of the Christmas season that is “cozy.” Matthew’s Jesus is persecuted from his birth by King Herod; Luke’s Jesus is born amidst the poor, a forecast that the Son of Man would have nowhere to rest his head.
But by the same token, the narratives of Christmas have reasons “that reason knows nothing about” in the words of our philosopher friend Blaise Pascal. There is something indescribably about a baby, a motherhood, that makes the doctrinal Incarnation a “felt” encounter with God. The fourth century heretics Arius and Nestorius could not bring themselves to accept the divine coming in lowly and dangerous straits, though the folks on their knees in this Mexican church were very much at home. The Catholics in Cozumel have put their empty manger at center stage to move their hearts toward the coming of God. Theirs will be a wonderful Christmas.