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:
- 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).
- Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. (Is 1:17)
- Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter (Prov 24:11).
- 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)
- 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)
- Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them! (Ps 82:4)
- 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)
- 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.
Painting above: The Flight to Egypt by Henry Tanner.