It must have caused quite a scandal in the barrio when neighbors learned Maria was pregnant. The girl was only 15 and was engaged to a man who was a few years older — a carpenter from Juarez named José.
José had not slept with the girl before their wedding, so he was hurt and angry when she told him she was expecting. He considered breaking up with her to avoid the ridicule they would face in their conservative culture. But he loved her, and after a strange dream, he decided he would not leave her, and would love the child she was carrying and bring him up as if he were his own.
Maria was a poor campesina, but descended from a noble family. She was a deeply spiritual person, but not in a haughty way. She was also a woman of the people. She believed in a God of liberation, one who defended the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
Before Emanuel was born, Maria gave an incendiary speech denouncing the social order in which small farmers and sweatshop workers were heavily taxed, and corrupt leaders had adversaries, even members of their own families, killed to get what they wanted.
Maria believed God’s revolution would right such wrongs and that her own son would have a role in bringing about a new order.
Speaking without fear, Maria said of her God: “He has accomplished great works and scattered those who are proud. He has brought down the powerful and lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his followers and shown them mercy, just as he promised.”
It was easy to see where Emanuel got his passion and devotion.
Maria was a gentle girl, but a little rough around the edges.
Her son was like her in that way. He was born in a barn while Maria and José traveled to a little town just south of the capital. They couldn’t find a hotel to stay in, and there was no hospital, so Maria gave birth to Emanuel amid the stench of manure, wrapped him in some cloth, and laid him in a feeding trough lined with hay.
That night a bright star was visible in the sky, and José and Maria wondered whether it had some meaning. When Emanuel was about one year old, the family fled to a foreign country as political refugees, but later returned home.
Like his adoptive father, Emanuel grew up to be a migrant carpenter and stonemason. He was also an itinerant preacher, spreading his message of spiritual liberation among the people.
Emanuel was sometimes homeless, wandering from one desert town to another. With his long hair and beard and dusty sandals, he wasn’t much to look at. There was nothing about him that would mark him as special. But people were attracted to him, and he gathered about him an unlikely assortment of friends, from Pedro the headstrong fisherman to the daydreamer Juan, to whom he was especially close.
Emanuel had a cousin, also named Juan, who was a little different. He lived outdoors and ate grasshoppers and honey. He was a street preacher who had a dangerous habit of criticizing corrupt officials. No one was surprised when he was murdered in jail, but they were shocked by the gruesome way in which it was done.
Emanuel, too, could be something of a troublemaker. He did not advocate violence, only resistance to injustice. But one day when he was at the metropolitan cathedral, he became so incensed about loan sharks preying on the faithful that he couldn’t control his anger, and he started yelling at the swindlers and kicking over their tables.
“This is a house of God, and you’ve turned it into a den of thieves!” he shouted.
That kind of behavior didn’t sit well with the establishment, and some tried to dismiss him, saying he was a drunkard and glutton because he drank wine and ate with outcasts.
He befriended prostitutes like Magdalena, as well as AIDS victims and other untouchables, and tried to help them.
The only people he lacked patience with were the self-righteous fundamentalist hypocrites who had close ties to some of the country’s worst and most amoral politicians and their wealthy benefactors.
Emanuel defended the poor, called for the release of captives, fed the hungry, cared for those who were ill, and envisioned a godly society of love and justice that would turn the selfish values of the old society upside down.
Emanuel advocated for peace, but he met a violent end. A former friend betrayed him for money to those who couldn’t stand his message of love and justice. They had Emanuel tortured and executed. He was taken to a garbage dump on a hillside, where they fastened him to a wooden post, stabbed him in the side with a machete, and left him to die.
But some say he came back to life, and that his spirit lives on. And they believe that at this time of the year, when his birthday is celebrated, Emanuel is reborn into the hearts and minds of all who believe in what he stood for and follow his example of a life of love, forgiveness, and sacrificial giving.
His light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
It never will.