This is a message I offered in December of 1999. It still resonates with me and challenges me, especially since I am much richer, both materially and spiritually than I was then.
Did you follow the news about the big battles going on in Seattle this week? The world is changing and the World Trade Organization appears to be a “target of choice” for people who don’t like the changes. Thousands of demonstrators this week tried to shut Seattle down and disrupt the WTO because they don’t believe, among other things, that the capitalists and governments getting together to smooth out trade are going to care for the poor. One French farmer who is famous in France for dismantling a McDonalds was there to keep saying that he doesn’t want the globalization of farming and the wholesale hormone infection of his food. People protested the fact that AIDS drugs are incredibly overpriced. The unions protested the exploitation of workers. And I think a lot of people were there because they don’t know what to do with their fear of huge corporations and powerful political people getting together and finding ways to get even richer.
Jesus loves the poor
Whose side Jesus is on? Well, I think Jesus probably couldn’t care less about debating politics which don’t derive consciously from him, so I imagine he finds some merit in arguments on any number of sides. BUT, I can say that everyone in Seattle last week who was attempting to be on the side of the poor, is going to find some sympathy from Jesus. That is exactly where we, as followers of Jesus should always be allied. If you don’t embrace your own poverty or aren’t taking up for the poor, Jesus would like to reveal the heart of God to you by becoming a human to open your eyes and show a new way to live.
Jesus is welcomed into the world by Elizabeth, an old, barren women related to his unwed mother. (Sounds like a quarter of the families filling the rowhouses of this city. Jesus is definitely born in a rowhouse on a street where half of them are abandoned). His coming out is given the big whoop of announcement by shepherds who either actually live out in the fields like one translation says, or who work the night shift. They might be the same class as the night security guards or taxi drivers. Jesus, himself, managed to be born in a stable. I can imagine this manger crib as a terrible accident for which Mary never forgave Joseph – “I told you to get reservations, but no, you were sure there would be plenty of rooms in the inns of Bethlehem.” Or perhaps we should see it as one of many statements about poverty that God wants to make.
It was kind of the Inquirer to publish two versions of Christmas this week when they were telling us about all the winter celebrations coming up. They had a religious column and a secular column for Christmas. From the middle of that glut one might forget the message the circumstances of the Lord’s birth vividly portrays. There is a definite preference for the poor being demonstrated throughout. Mary gets the message right away. She’s standing there with her pregnant old aunt, who recognizes her niece is bearing the Messiah.
Some of what Mary said includes:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me–
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
That song doesn’t go over big, here in the land of secular Christmas. What bigger irritatant could place in the American religion than to say something like, “He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty?“ Jesus turns it all upside down. Old barren women have babies, young virgins become pregnant, kings are born in stables, and suddenly angels are appearing to shepherds in the field.
Blessed are the poor
I’m not sure one can make too much of these shepherds. Of course it is all speculation as to what exactly it was like to be a shepherd in the day God was born as Jesus. But I suppose it must be obvious that if you sit around in a field all night, being a shepherd can’t be a white collar job. We won’t know until heaven just what these guys were really like, but it is reported shepherds were probably scary, hard-drinking types who couldn’t hold a day job. It is nice to sing a French folk tune that sounds relatively sweet and clean, carefully reconstructed to fit into a church service in the 1850’s, like that “Angels We Have Heard on High” song. But chances are, the shepherds were not the type who went to church or spoke French. Face it, God loves the poor. He may be gracious to everyone, and that is love, too. But his heart beats for the poor.
When Jesus appears, this is part of the big announcement, “Blessed are the poor” God is here. Finally, He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
We are all rich enough here for this to make a difference to us. Even the poorest of the people in the U.S. might be collectively considered better off than the poor among the rest of the world. So it makes a difference that Jesus shows God’s apparent preference for the poor, and shows his great interest in revealing himself to the poor. And Mary, at least, has gotten the message that the rich have problems meeting God.
So let’s briefly explore this. Is there some kind of advantage in being poor?
1) Yes. I think there is a spiritual advantage to being literally poor.
Obviously, “poor” is a relative term. And obviously many people do not have a discussion about whether they are poor or not. You decide all that about you — whether you are poor enough just being poorer than “them,” or whether you need to choose to be poor once you actually have a choice.
The Christians in the United States have spent so many years justifying why it is not only OK but a blessing for them to be rich that they are often just about impossible to talk to about their wealth at all. There was this big article in a religious magazine I get that had a report about a revolutionary thing happening in a small group in Kansas; they were actually talking to one another about their money and how they spent it! Some revolution! But when you have grown totally used to being rich and controlling it all privately for your own benefit, just talking about wealth is radical.
I just want to point out that the poor in the Christmas story have an advantage. They are the ones who get direct revelation from God.
2) There is an advantage to being poor in Spirit, too.
Being humble, not considering yourself all-important is basic. Doesn’t Jesus say unless you are at least poor in Spirit it will be almost impossible to meet God?
I think what we do with our bodies makes a difference to what is happening to our souls every time. So I don’t want you to get the wrong idea when I say “poor in spirit,” here. Being poor in your heart is not necessarily different from being literally poor. But Jesus seems to think it is deeper than just being poor. You can be poor and not be poor in spirit.
So poor or rich, whatever you are stuck with for the time being, it appears that it is very difficult to live in the presence of God, unless you are in touch with how poor and powerless you really are.
For instance, it is good to be Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mother, who is an old, apparently sterile woman, who feels disgrace over never having a child. The poverty of her disgrace is an access point for God. It is good to be Mary, a pregnant teenager, who is going to answer a lifetime of questions about who really fathered her oldest son. Her doubts and distress, her conflicts, are access points for God. It is good to be a shepherd who can’t get a better job and probably feels sort of like the low-life everyone says he is. His low self-esteem is an access point for God.
Everyone is trying to get us all to give in to the philosophy of the day which thinks it is common sense that everyone will be happy when they are happy with themselves. But it is possible that the message of Christmas is that no one is happy and only knowing God can get you anywhere at all. The message is, “Don’t make yourself happy by pumping yourself up until you are rich in self. Be blessed. Get a self from God by finding yourself in relationship to him.”
The poor and the poor in Spirit are the people who get to meet God in the here and now. That is the amazing message of the Christmas story. It is a message worth receiving, and an ongoing gift you can give to the world that just doesn’t get it.
I will leave you with an example of someone who was an incarnation of Christ among the poor and who wasn’t afraid to speak the truth she lived among the powerful.
Mother Teresa leads the way
Five or six years ago, before she died, Mother Teresa of Calcutta was at that famous national Prayer Breakfast in which she took on the U.S. and the President for being a nation committed to abortion and buried in drugs all at the expense of children in the Year of the Child.
Here are some excerpts of her remarks:
The poor are very great people…. These poor people maybe have nothing to eat, maybe they have not a home to live in, but they can still be great people when they are spiritually rich. Those who are materially poor can be wonderful people. One evening we went out and we picked up four people from the street. And one of them was in a most terrible condition. I told the Sisters: “You take care of the other three; I will take care of the one who looks worse.” So I did for her all that my love can do. I put her in bed, and there was a beautiful smile on her face. She took hold of my hand, and she said one thing only: “Thank you.” Then she died.
I could not help but examine my conscience before her. I asked, “What would I say if I were in her place?” And my answer was very simple. I would have tried to draw a little attention to myself. I would have said, “I am hungry, I am dying, I am cold, I am in pain,” or something like that. But she gave me much more – she gave me her grateful love. And she died with a smile on her face.
Then there was the man we picked up from the drain, half-eaten by worms. And after we had brought him to the home, he only said, “I have lived like an animal in the street, but am going to die as an angel, loved and cared for.” Then, after we had removed all the worms from this body, all he said – with a big smile – was: “Sister, I am going home to God.” And he died. It was so wonderful to see the greatness of that man, who could speak like that without blaming anybody, without comparing anything. Like an angel – this is the greatness of people who are spiritually rich, even when they are materially poor.
Your are hearing the message again: Here it is summarized in a letter to the Corinthian church: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”
What kind of rich is it? It is not the foolish wealth of this world that passes away. It is the wealth summarized in Romans: “Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
God born in a stable is telling us something. “I knows your poverty.” He’s in it with us. It is an advantage to be poor when it leads you to be rich in Christ.