On the Poverty of the First Christmas and the Gift to Love the Poor

One of the great gifts to be sought at Christmas is to experience an increase in our love the poor. Poverty, it is true, remains a complicated and vexing problem, especially in modern market based economies. Linked to poverty are complicated social issues such as addiction, single motherhood and the unintended though real consequences of welfare programs, as currently structured.

But none of these complexities can exempt us of our summons to care for the poor and to grow in love for them, yes to actually love them, not only serve them. How we will ultimately and best serve the poor or solve all the complex issues related to poverty may not always be clear to us. But to love them is to receive the God-given gift that will energize our zeal and serve as the true foundation for the persistent and consistent action that is so essential to lasting solutions.

This Christmas why not ask the gift to love the poor more deeply, with an abiding and deep affection?

For poverty and neediness are an intrinsic aspect of the Infancy narratives. The first Christmas was anything but charming or sentimental. It is charged with homelessness, hardship, a lack of decent resources, disregard for human life (by Herod), and the flight of the Holy Family as refugees and aliens in a foreign land.

Joseph and Mary, with Jesus were not destitute. They were among what we might call the working the poor. But one thing about be among the working poor, you’re always on the edge of an abyss. Most the benefits that the working middle and upper classes in our culture have, were unknown to Joseph and Mary.  And such benefits are also unknown to many of the working poor today, who, because of their part-time status, lack the benefits that cushion us from life’s vicissitudes. There was not security net for Joseph and Mary. There was no sick leave, vacation with pay, medical benefits and the like. If you were sick you missed work,  and didn’t get paid.  If there were a family crisis, you still had to work, or if you missed work, and again, so much for the pay.

Destitution for the working poor was always one or two paychecks away. Life was fragile and very dependent on the right combination of work and extended family ties. Any disturbance to this delicate balance could bring on real crisis. And in the Christmas story we see an ensuing crisis

Thus we see Joseph and Mary swept up in power move among the governing authorities to take a census. This was about power and taxes, and armies, it was about control. Scripture says, The poor man is devoured by the pride of the wicked: he is caught in the schemes that others have made (Ps 10:2. Grail).

Yes,  Joseph and Mary are swept away from their resources, their family, extended family, and Joseph from his livelihood. They are swept downstream some 70 miles to the town of Bethlehem at a critical time for their family, the 9th month of Mary’s pregnancy. Could you walk 70 miles? And what if you were pregnant? Artists depict Mary on a donkey. I have my doubts. Donkeys were expensive and it is unlikely that the working poor would have such an expensive animal. It may be that Joseph himself pushed Mary in a cart. We are left to wonder. But this was no pleasure cruise. It was a grave hardship and a major social dislocation. Life is fragile for the poor. This young family is torn from its supports and resources and made to travel 70 miles on foot to a distant town, and just hope arrangements could be found. The poor are caught in schemes others have made.

Homelessness awaited them. We may be content to think that that lodging was scarce in that city, swelled by an unexpected census. But the reality was likely more complicated. Lodging could likely have been found for the right price. But when you’re among the working poor, such certainties that money can supply are usually lacking. Should it matter that Joseph’s wife is nine months pregnant and due any moment? Apparently not. Human sympathy is a wonderful thing, but it is not a dependable thing when you don’t have the money or resources to inspire it in others. The poor can seek sympathy, but they may or may not get it.

Off to the stinking stable, the dank cave. Poverty does stink, and leads to deep and dank places. We may sentimentalize the birth of Jesus among animals, but there was nothing cute about it. The Church speaks reverently of the mystery of this moment: O magnum mysterium et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderunt Dominum natum jacentem in praesepio! (O great mystery and wondrous sacrament, that animals would see the newborn Lord lying in a feedbox).

Yes, the wondrous mystery is that God so esteems poverty. But the disgrace of this remains at our door. It is a foreshadowing of the mystery of the cross. Yes, Christ saves us through it, but shame, shame on us. Shame that our Messiah had to endure this birth in a smelly cave, shame that we would later scorn and crucify him who said “Blessed are the poor” (Lk 6:20).

So poverty is an overarching theme in the infancy narrative. But ultimately the deepest poverty is upon us who so neglect the poor. For in neglecting them, we neglect the Lord and bring judgment on ourselves (cf Matt 25:41ff). And in this moment of the nativity story,  we neglect the Lord personally and historically as well well as mystically.

It is not long before we add the holy family to the list of refugees and resident aliens. For the fear of the powerful, in this case Herod, is such a powerful fear, that he fears even the poor.

The life of the Lord Jesus is despised and disrespected because his existence is inconvenient, threatening to Herod’s plans and his life as he knows it. Jesus must go. Somehow Herod is able to justify his infanticide. To him and those who support him, human life is not sacred, it is disposable, if it gets in the way of “more important goals” like power, plans, and personal advancement. Yes, Jesus must go, he is in the way.

In their flight from this infanticidal King they flee to Egypt. A terrible journey, made in haste without supplies. Perhaps they begged for food and shelter along the way? The stretch of desert from Gaza to Alexandria is a hellacious journey. Some friends recently road the bus from Bethlehem to Mt Sinai. Along the way the A/C on the bus broke. “It was terrible!” they said. Yes it was, but not so terrible as it was for Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

Refugees and Immigrants – Coming into this foreign land, perhaps they settled among fellow Jews, perhaps not. We do not Know. Was Joseph reduced to being a day laborer? How did he find work? What resources did the Holy family have? Were the Jews despised there? How stable were the conditions there, especially for the poor? The Scriptures are quiet.

But this much we know, they were strangers, aliens, immigrants, in a foreign land. They did not speak the king’s Egyptian, and likely lived from day to day. Herod died in 4 BC. If it is true that Jesus was born about 3 BC we can assume that they spent the better part of a year or two in Egypt, vulnerable and dislocated, refugees and immigrants, aliens, to use the legal term.

Do you Love Jesus, Mary and Joseph? Let me ask it another way: Do you love the poor, the homeless, the vulnerable, the despised, the refugee, the immigrant? Don’t turn Jesus, Mary or Joseph into an abstraction, for this is what they were in human terms at this crucial moment of their lives. Perhaps they knocked on doors and sought lodging or resources. Perhaps Joseph longed for, and sought work, perhaps Jesus needed clothes. Jesus’ life was threatened by infanticide just as today, poor infants, needy infants, physically deformed infants, are threatened with abortion.

Do you love the poor? Here is a gift to be sought at Christmas, that we can more deeply love the poor and be moved with compassion and zeal for their care.

Personal story – I am fifty years old, and for the last 27 of those fifty years I have attended Mass every day, read Scripture and prayed every day. And I must say, that as my communion with the Lord has deepened, so has my communion with all God’s people. I have seen love in me increase, not by my effort, but as the pure gift of God. I have seen an increase in compassion, my ability to for give, to be more generous, and to speak the truth in love.

And no one can go to Mass and read Scripture attentively every day for almost 30 years and not come away with an understanding that God loves the poor and is passionate about how we care for them.  As important as our ritual duties to God are, and we should keep them, God goes so far as to say:

  1. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? “This the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke. To share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter–when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (Isaiah 58:6).
  2. Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. (Is 1:17)
  3. Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter (Prov 24:11).
  4. And if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. (Is. 58:10)
  5. He who does not oppress anyone, but returns what he took in pledge for a loan. He does not commit robbery but gives his food to the hungry and provides clothing for the naked. He does not lend at usury or take excessive interest. He withholds his hand from doing wrong and judges fairly between man and man. He follows my decrees and faithfully keeps my laws. That man is righteous; he will surely live, declares the Sovereign Lord (Ezekiel 18:7-9)
  6. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them! (Ps 82:4)
  7. This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. (Jer 22:3)
  8. Therefore, O king, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue.” (Daniel 4:27)

And there are literally a hundred other similar verses that speak of God’s passionate concern for the poor and how we treat them. I have read these verses over and over in the Liturgy and I must say, I have not come away from them unchanged.

It is very clear to me that it is not enough for me to go to church, say my prayers, live chastely and be nice to my friends. God is also passionate about how I treat the poor and the needy. And I have also personally come to discover that merely doing good to them or writing a check is not enough. The gift that God has given me is to love the poor, more and more.

There are many debates about how best to care for the poor. Is is the government’s duty? Is it the private sector’s duty? Is is families and churches? It is all of these.

But even more, it is your responsibility and mine. Otherwise the “charming” Christmas story of no room in the Inn comes “home” to roost in our own living room, and the injustice of that moment is ours, not some rude and insensitive inn keeper of 2,000 years ago.

God is passionate about the poor and how we care for them. There is simply no other possible conclusion in the face of overwhelming Scriptural evidence.

But how do it? How will we ever make the right choices and get the balance right? How will we ever address the complicated social conditions that give rise to poverty? How do we decide who is most deserving in the face of limited resources? A thousand questions come to mind. But it begins simply here: Love them. Ask for a deep affection and an abiding love for the poor. And not a pitying love, but a respectful love that understands the special esteem God has for them and the close self-identification Jesus makes with them (cf Matt 25:41ff). A love that understand that, though they may need us now, we will need them in the age to come at the judgment.

A final story. When I came to my current assignment, the parish finances were in some distress. And, thanks be to God, through Biblical tithing, we have once again attained financial stability. But together with the Parish Council and Financial Council we have also attained a consensus that we but do better for the poor. In a parish with a budget of 1.2 million dollars, only $10,000 had been set aside for the poor. We have been changing that over the last few years and are now close to $100,000. It became unthinkable to us that that we were spending almost a million dollars a year on ourselves, on altar cloths, and  sanctuaries (important), etc.,  and yet many poor in our area were not properly clothed and were loosing the sanctuaries of their homes.

Once having set our social concerns budget at 10% of the whole budget we have only just begun, for additionally we must care for the poor and needy through second collections and the Lenten appeal. I do not say any of this as a boast, just as a testimony of what God put in our hearts and in our capacity to do.

Do you love the poor? Ask for this gift this Christmas. God could not be more pleased with such a gift request.

Some Statistics About Poverty in the US

Painting above: The Flight to Egypt by Henry Tanner.

20 Replies to “On the Poverty of the First Christmas and the Gift to Love the Poor”

  1. Thank you for telling it like it most likely was and is for the poor. I am personally asking for this great gift to love the poor more deeply and with great affection. Thank you.

  2. Technology allows us to support the poor from the comfort of our homes without ever having to do as Jesus did – touch the poor, eat with them, listen to them, look them in the eye. I admire those who live outside of that ‘comfort zone’, who willingly bring the messiness of the poor into their daily lives. These workers are saints.

  3. The respectful love is key, not pity or disgust, respect. Not easy to do. I knew a woman who worked in a government program, something like WIC, and she became very hardened towards the clients there. She said they acted entitled to their vouchers, and would become very annoyed if they weren’t there on time, that kind of thing. I don’t know how she responded to them. But I know for me, if a customer service representative just says something simple to me when I am having a problem, like, “This is a bummer, I’m going to do my best to fix this,” my whole attitude changes. I dunno, tough stuff I think.

    I’ve been thinking about this during this Advent season. Not sure where I saw it, but a catchy phrase has stuck with me, “It’s not your birthday, it’s His.”

    Wonderful post, thank you.

    1. And why did Jesus have a birthday in the first place? For His own sake?

      His birthday is our birthday, our real birthday.

      God became man so that men might become like God.

  4. how poignant this blog is for me today. My uncle, a priest for 50 years, passed away this morning. His life was rooted in the Eucharist and dedicate to severing the poor on the missions.

  5. Blessed are you, Father; you are a wise man. Thank you for the gift of sharing God’s grace of wisdom. Can you please comment, or point in the right direction, for the meaning of the beatitude “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”, specifically the “poor in spirit” and “kingdom of heaven” parts.

  6. I’m not sure what you mean by helping the poor, but in my experience it would include helping people with addictions and with abortion aftermath, and in helping families stay together.

  7. I live in a small town in Indonesia,and I always follow your blog. This time I am so moved by your description the situation where JosephMary were facing, and for being poor. During the years 70’s and 80’s I was involved in parish and the diocese activities, ie in the Social/charity services, in the arcdiocese of Jakarta. It was a very fruitful years, because apparently it was meant as a massive and big chatechesis for me in the grassroot level. It was an productive parish life, since the late Abp Leo Sukoto at that time had decreed that 30% of church collection, ( the bulk of parish income) was to be allocated to parish charity works for the destitu and near-destitude members,i.e for old-age problemsbasic alleviation, basic medical requirement, school feesand small scale business outlay. At that time sunday collection amount to some $ 100 (present value) , out of some 6.000 parish membership and some less than 2.000 sunday Mass attendance ( 4 Masses ) .I learned the present receipt is a bit more than $1.000, Unfortunately the 30 % allocation for the poor was severely cut back by Abp that follow the late Abp Leo, to 15 % only. Unfortunely also is that no single bishop of the entire Indonesian Bishop Conference ever care to follow suite Abp Leo’s initiative, until to-day.

  8. Who are the poor? In this country, America, the “poor” are nearly non-exsistent.

    I’ve been to many Third World countries, where the real poor barely have a roof overhead, or clothes, or anything at all to eat.

    In this country, the “poor” have access to food, healthcare, housing, transportation…..and most importantly….OPPORTUNITIES!

    Look at India. Largely considered poor, yet many people there are very intelligent and well educated….but they have few OPPORTUNITIES….and so they cannot escape poverty.

    Many (most?) “poor” in this country make bad decisions and suffer the natural consequences of those decisions. Do the “poor” try to get the knowledge that they lack……e.g. finish high school at least; don’t spend your money on dumb things like expensive cell phones, car decorations, flashy clothes like the loserspeak hip hop stars, don’t act immorally with your boyfriend or girlfriend, don’t lie, cheat or steal…etc…these are lessons my parents, and everyone I associate with….taught us as kids. This is basic for living well.

    Show some compassion anyone who disagrees, and talk with “the homeless”. Aside from the genuinely mentally ill, you’ll find universally, that the “homeless” see advantages to living that way. You may disagree with living on the street, but talk to them and they’ll tell you what they like about it.

    Otherwise, be grateful that we don’t have poverty in America…….’cept when we’re all equal some day through government fairness laws!

    1. But Rolling, my question remains, “Do you love the poor?” As the article mentions, poverty is complicated and the factors you mention are not without merit. But do you love them and can you speak the truth in love? Or will you be dismissive as your tone here seems to be and “definitional” – Who are the poor? (aka – Who is my neighbor)? Be careful, you just might make a bad decision one day, I hope you won’t experience the same venom you seem to articulate here. You last comment is unnecessary. This is not about politics and government, it is about you and me, as the article states. I am not advocating big government. But as is too often the case, many people let their politics lead their faith, as I think your final comment reveals.

      1. Msgr, I appreciate your comments. The rather expected, obvious ones from Jeff and Anne, less so. Please don’t tell me what is already patently obvious. I have no doubt that there are many people who “lack” various material things, including food and shelter. What exactly is the solution for that when it is evident that seriously bad decisions have led them to this unfortunate state?

        In the short term, sure, feed, clothe, house etc. And for those who simply cannot manage the normal activities of life, they should be given caretakers who control their money and affairs. Sounds like a potential burgeoning industry. However, if such enabling as Jeff and Anne seem to encourage…..a lifelong situation of encouraging indolence (while money and time is spent in dissolution by “the poor” in America), such people NEED for their own self worth and sakes, TO BE CUT OFF! Ask “the poor” if they would clean our streets, rivers, cities etc. Would they do work that nobody is doing but needs to be done. In America, they will say NO. Yet we have hardworking amazingly strong foreigners willing to get out in the fields and do stoop labor! How come our homegrown “poor” don’t do that? Too proud? Lose their government money if they had to try and earn $30/day? Sorry Msgr. There are political implications to the poverty industry in America.

        In other places where there are REAL poor, there is no opportunity even to do the lowest tasks.

        1. Rolling, your thesis, repeated again in your response, that all the poor are resposible for their own poverty; that they don’t do anything to lift themselves out of it; and that people like me indulge their indolence is baseless. Just as I would not issue blanket generalizations about Christians throughout the world, I would not make your generalizations about the poor.

          As Msgr Pope and I suggested, there are multi-faceted causes. Not every poor person is to blame. You give too much weight to people’s agency (to move from anywhere to where low-paying seasonal manual labor opportunities are, for example – surely not your answer to every poor person’s situation? Or should we cordon Florida off for them all?). You give little or no weight to factors outside of their control. With respect, a simple, incomplete, and heartless analysis of a complex problem does no one any good at all.

          Merry Christmas.

    2. Rolling,

      We have many poor people in the United States – and poor in the ways that you mention: without a roof, without clothing, or without food. Walk into any food bank, under any bridge, or by any homeless shelter to see the faces of real people living in real poverty.

      And I, too, have lived and worked in many third world countries where poverty is greater, in qualitative and quantitative senses. And, for sure, one can say that a destitute woman in Washington is probably better off that a destitute woman in Sao Paolo or Nairobi. Those comparisons have meaning, I suppose, at a policy level but are of no comfort to that destitute woman in DC. She is still poor, hungry, and alone; she derives no benefit or pleasure from knowing someone is worse off than her.

      And I agree with you that some poor people are there as a direct result of their own bad (and at times, sinful) choices. But there are many others mired in poverty by the decisions and actions of others – be they a warlord, abusive parent, or greedy investment banker. There are others rended poor by natural disasters. The body of poor does not form a monolith about which we can make generalizations – or dismissive and disrespectful remarks.

  9. Rolling, perhaps you could visit my city. On recycling day, hard working poor come down my street and pick out plastic soda bottles from garbage cans to get a few cents for each one at recycling centers. I have seen mothers with toddlers in tow in inclement weather doing just this. My husband teaches in the inner city where many of his high school students are failing morally and academically…there is no one at home when he calls…these children have grown up largely unsupervised and unmotivated and prey to the worst that the CEO’s of the “entertainment industry” stream into their consciousness from an early age. I have visited in nursing homes where underpaid and undertrained aides take care of the precious elderly who rarely receive a visitor. I have been in the South Bronx where my nephew is a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal in one of the poorest zip codes in the U.S. Please look around you, Rolling. Also, a great deal of poverty is hidden, behind doors you will never open.

    Thank You, Monsignor Pope, we need a wake up call…this is one of the best Christmas meditations I have ever read.

  10. I would hope that everyone especially those in government will become aware of your meditation on the poor! In the infancy narratives I think that there is some contradiction between the poverty of the Holy Family in Bethlehem and at the house in Nazareth where they received gold, myrh and frankincense. In Egypt Joseph was a carpenter with a good trade – probably among Jewish residents there – and not necessarily among the working poor. I pray that your call to help the poor will not go unheeded!

    1. Of course the gifts were actually given at Bethlehem. It is uncertain as to the amounts of these gifts but one can speculate that these helped sustain them in their sojourn and stay in Egypt. Your speculation about Joseph’s status in Egypt is not unlikely but remains a speculation. No picnic to be sure.

  11. It could be at Nazareth as there is a time lapse between the magi with Herod and when “on entering the HOUSE they saw the child with Mary his mother.”

  12. I have been thinking about this blog a lot… In truth those of use who are not poor, are only rich in that these are all gifts from God, given freely and in Love. Justice requires us to share those gifts generously. The poor are not just the homeless but the forgotten, the unloved, the sick, the addicted, the lonely, the bitter, the hungry, and those hungry for faith and truth. Yes they live in gutters and shelters and struggle for basic survival but they also live in big houses with beautiful furniture but in sorrow or shame or lonliness. We are all sinners and not one of of us “deserves” anyting we have. We haven’t earned it and we have no right to hoard the goods of this earth or the joy of faith from others. Rather than get bogged down in the question of who are the poor, are they really poor, did their own foolishness cause it, do they deserve it – we should stay focused on the message.. Love the poor and fidelity to the Eucharist is the only way we can develop the capcity to truly love the poor.

    I read the blog every day and I want to thank Monsignor Pope and all those who comment for your thought provoking comments and to wish you all a happy and holy Christmas.

  13. The poor are all around us. Of late, most American families are a paycheck away from no resources. Times are tough. These are not families that knew poverty. Joblessness is way up and many Americans have one or more members of their family without jobs. I can tell you from experience. They are not going to tell you that they are wondering how all their needs are going to be met, let alone celebrate Christmas with presents or a tree. Did you see the article about people helping pay off lay-aways at K-Mart? There is a segment of the population that seems untouched by what is happening in America. There are many middle-class America’s with college educations suffering. Look for someone to help and cheer up this Christmas. Show them that someone cares.

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