The place is Solentiname, an archipelago in Lake Nicaragua; the setting, a campesino church service in the mid-1970s. Padre Cardenal, the priest, does not believe in sermons, but brings the gospel alive by leading his congregation in weekly dialogues like this one:
We were in the church. I said by way of introduction that Matthew’s words, “in the days of Herod the King,” tell us that Jesus was born under a tyranny. There were three Herods; or, as we might say in Nicaragua, three Somozas: Herod the elder, Herod his son, and a grandson Herod. Herod the elder, the one at the time of Jesus’s birth, had ordered two of his sons to be strangled on suspicion of conspiracy, and he also killed one of his wives. At the time of Jesus’s birth he killed more than three hundred public servants on other suspicions of conspiracy. So Jesus was born in an atmosphere of repression and terror. It was known that the Messiah was going to be king, and that’s why the wise men arrived asking for the king of the Jews, meaning the Messiah.
Then to Jerusalem came wise men
from the East saying:
“Where is the King of the Jews
that has been born?
For we saw his star in the East
And we have come here to worship him.”
Laureano said: “I think these wise men shit things up when they went to Herod asking about a liberator. It would be like someone going to Somoza now to ask him who’s going to liberate Nicaragua.”
Another of the young men: “The way I figure it, these wise men were afraid of Herod and didn’t want to do anything without his consent.”
Tomás Peña: “They went to ask him for a pass. . . .”
The same young man: “They probably went first to consult Herod because they were afraid of him, and all those people of Jerusalem were filled with fear when they heard talk of a Messiah, just like Nicaraguan people are afraid when they hear talk of liberation. The minute they hear that young people want to liberate those of us who are being exploited, they begin to shake and be afraid. When they hear people say that this government must be overthrown, they shake and are afraid.”
Adán: “It seems to me that when those wise men arrived they knew that the Messiah had been born and they thought Herod knew about it and that the Messiah was going to be a member of his family. If he was a king, it was natural that they should go to look for him in Herod’s palace. But in that palace there was nothing but corruption and evil, and the Messiah couldn’t be born there. He had to be born among the people, poor, in a stable. They learned a lesson there when they saw that the Messiah had not been born in a palace or in the home of some rich person, and that’s why they had to go on looking for him somewhere else. The Gospel says later that when they left there they saw the star again. That means that when they reached Jerusalem the star wasn’t guiding them. They’d lost it.”
Félix: “They were confused. And it seems to me that since they were foreigners they didn’t know the country very well, and they went to the capital, where the authorities were, to ask about the new leader.”
When Herod the king heard this
he was very troubled,
and all the people of Jerusalem also.
Oscar: “I figure that when Herod found out that that king had been born he was furious because he didn’t want to stop being the ruler. He was as mad as hell. And he was already figuring out how to get rid of this one like he had got rid of so many already.”
Pablo: “He must have felt hatred and envy. Because dictators always think they are gods. They think they’re the only ones and they can’t let anyone be above them.”
Gloria: “And he was probably afraid, too. He had killed a lot of people not long before, and then some gentlemen arrive asking where’s the new king.”
Félix: “He surely must have put all his police on the alert. I think that’s what the Gospel means here: ‘He was very troubled.’”
One of the young people: “And the Gospel says that the other people of Jerusalem were also troubled. That means his followers, the big shots, like the Somoza crowd. Because for them it was very bad news that the liberator was arriving. But for poor people it was great news. And the powerful people knew that the Messiah had to be against them.”
Old Tomás Peña: “That king who ruled that republic with a firm hand — he ruled a million people or however many there were then — he didn’t allow anyone to say anything he didn’t like. You could only think the way the government wanted, and they surely didn’t allow any talk about messiahs. And they must have been annoyed when outsiders came talking about that, as if they were talking about a new government.”
Manuel: “The people had been waiting for that Messiah or liberator for some time. And it’s interesting to see that even out of the country the news had got around that he had been born, and these wise men found out, it seems to me, from the people. But in Jerusalem the powerful were entirely ignorant of his birth.”
Then the king called
all the chiefs of the priests
and those who taught the law to the people,
and he asked them where Christ
was going to be born.
Felipe: “The clergy are summoned by a tyrant who has killed a lot of people. And the clergy answer the call. It seems to me that if they went to his palace it’s because they were his supporters, they approved of his murders. Just like today the monsignors who are supporters of the regime that we have. It means that those people were like the people we have today in Nicaragua.”
They told him: “In Bethlehem of Judea:
for thus it is written by the prophet.”
Don José: “They knew he was going to be born in a little town, among the common people. But they were in Jerusalem, visiting with the powerful and the rich in their palaces. Just like today there are a lot of Church leaders who know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and every year they preach about this at Christmas, that Jesus was born poor in a manger, but the places they go to all the time are rich people’s houses and palaces.”
When they saw the star again
They were filled with joy.
They went into the house;
they saw the child with Mary his mother,
and they knelt down and worshipped him.
Then they opened their boxes
And they gave him presents of gold, incense, and myrrh.
Tomás: “They come and open their presents — some perfumes and a few things of gold. It doesn’t seem as if he got big presents. Because those foreigners that could have brought him a big sack of gold, a whole bunch of coins, or maybe bills, they didn’t bring these things. What they brought to him were little things. . . . That’s the way we ought to go, poor, humble, the way we are. At least that’s what I think.”
Olivia: “It’s on account of these gifts from the wise men that the rich have the custom of giving presents at Christmas. But they give them to each other.”
Marcelino: “The stores are full of Christmas presents in the cities, and they make lots of money. But it’s not the festival of the birth of the child Jesus. It’s the festival of the birth of the son of King Herod.”
Afterwards, being warned in a dream
that they should not return
to where Herod was,
they returned to their country
by another way.
Tomás: “The wise men go off by another route. He inspired them not to inform on him, because he was already a fugitive. He made them see they shouldn’t go back the same way. It was better to go another way. Already defending his body. At least that’s what I think.”
Felipe: “By now they were the fugitives too. They went off by another way like they were fleeing. And I think that if they’d returned to the capital they’d have been killed.”
Alejandro: “Well, the liberator was born in an atmosphere of persecution, and those who come to see him are also persecuted. The people must have kept the secret. . . .”
Olivia: “The truth is that ever since he was at his mother’s breast he had the rich against him. When she was pregnant Mary had sung that her son was coming to dethrone the powerful and to heap good things upon the poor and to leave the rich without a single thing. And from his birth they pursued him to kill him, and then he had to flee in his mother’s arms and with his papa. . . .”
Gloria: “Those common people had a hope now. And as soon as they found out he’d been born they felt happy. The neighbors all knew. That star, maybe it was the townspeople talking, and it got to the wise men.”
Chael: “Those wise gentlemen found something they weren’t expecting — that the liberator was a poor little child, and besides, a little child persecuted by the powerful.”
Laureano: “The ones who were persecuting him were the rulers. He was a guy that was coming to change everything, coming to make everybody equal, coming to liberate the poor and to take power away from the rulers because they were shitting everything up. And that’s why the powerful went after him to kill him.”