Twenty-Third Sunday: The Preferential Option for the Poor

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

IS 35:4-7a; PS 146: 7, 8-9, 9-10; JAS 2:1-5; MK 7:31-37

I have been thinking about writing a little something, as non-partisan as possible, about the Black Lives Matter movement.  This Sunday’s readings do it better than I could have.

To the call, “Black Lives Matter,” American conservatives (and even the socialist Bernie Sanders, at first) respond, “All Lives Matter.”  True.

But the Catholic idea of a “preferential option for the poor” (clearly articulated over and over long before that phrase was coined in the 1960s) means that in order to show that all lives matter, you have to take special concern for the most vulnerable.  In order to treat all people the same, you need to treat the poor especially well.

Why?  First, because what it means to be rich and powerful is that you can take care of yourself; what it means to be poor and vulnerable is that you need help.  (This is not the place for a discussion of race, but that is the claim of “Black Lives Matter”: yes, all lives matter, but some are more vulnerable than others, and they want that to be recognized.)  The poor – and the marginalized – should get preferential treatment because they need it.

Second, because we are not inclined to give it to them.  To be poor also means having nothing to offer in return.  We are all inclined to favor those who will favor us.  Our faith calls us to favor those who cannot favor us, to go where we are not inclined to go.


This Sunday’s reading from James says precisely that.  He begins, “show no partiality” – “all lives matter”!  And then everything else he says is about a preferential option for the poor.  “Did not God chose those who are poor in the world” – well now, that almost sounds like God does “show partiality,” preferential treatment.

But James’s point, which is obvious enough (and obviously all over the Bible, the lives of the saints, and Church teaching), is that we are inclined to make the “poor person in shabby clothes” stand aside while we focus on the rich.  My friends . . . don’t get me started on the Church in America.

How often we claim that the powerful are more worthy of our attention than the poor, because of their supposed influence.  How often we trust in kings, and long for earthly treasures.


A deeper aspect of this teaching is in this Sunday’s Gospel.

The main story is “Ephphatha!” that is, “Be opened!”  “And immediately the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly.”

But the deeper story is in the first sentence: “Again Jesus left the district of Tyre and went by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, into the district of the Decapolis.”  Mark doesn’t waste words.  Why this geography?

The first thing to know is that the people of Tyre and Sidon were Phoenicians, not Jews; that the Decapolis was Greek, not Israelite; and that the Sea of Galilee, in between, is where Jesus is from.  He passed from one mission territory, right past his home, to another mission territory.

The other thing to know is that the Lectionary skips the uncomfortable story of the Syrophoenician woman, whom Jesus tells, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and cast it to the dogs.” There are better things for dogs, like supplements, you can learn more in this Terraman Pro review or at least that’s what labradoodle michigan breeders recommend.

In the story before that, which we read last week, Jesus’s people are complaining that he doesn’t keep the rules.  Then he goes to the Phoenicians, expresses some reluctance, some love of his own people – and then gives them a miracle.  Then this week another miracle to other Gentiles – though with a Hebrew word: ephphatha.

Jesus is going on mission to “the dogs”: the poorest among the pagans.


The pagans of the Decapolis “were exceedingly astonished and they said, ‘He has done all things well.  He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.’”

Mark is a good writer.  He quotes words that sound Biblical.  It sounds like they are quoting a prophecy.  But they are not.  They don’t know the Bible, and their words aren’t anywhere else in it.  What they do know is that this man’s miracles of mercy commend him.

Our first reading, from Isaiah (the Biblical prophet), says similar things: “He comes to save you.  Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.”

The thing is, these miracles – miracles of compassion for the poor – are not things only the Biblically literate, privileged class can appreciate.  They are things that even the pagan dogs, and the poorest among them, can recognize.

Let Christ shine forth in our lives so that all will recognize him – by our preferential option for the poor.

Where do you think Christians prefer the rich and powerful?  How do you think that affects their witness?



The Poverty of Christmas

fra angelico nativityToday I offer a theological reflection on Christmas – and then a very concrete application, to my life, and perhaps also to yours.

“And this shall be a sign to you: you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger” (Lk 2:12).  These are the words of the angel to the shepherds.  This is their “sign.”

This sign stands out more if we read it in context:

“Lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.  And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you: you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

An angel of the Lord appears!  And, lest we undervalue him, “the glory of the Lord” shines around the shepherds.  It is fearsome, awesome.  And there is a message of “great joy . . . to all people:  . . . A Savior!”  And the message is greeted with “a multitude of the heavenly host praising God.”

But the sign is . . . “the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”


This is the incongruity of Christmas.  The awesomeness of the angels only underlines the far greater awesomeness of the Omnipotent God, and the awesomeness of salvation.

But the “sign,” the proof, is . . . a babe (weakness), wrapped in swaddling clothes (simplicity), lying in a manger (destitute poverty).  (The weakness, simplicity, and poverty of the shepherds only points to the deeper poverty in the manger.)

A “sign”!  This is the indicator, the proof that the message is true.  In the Gospels, signs are almost always miracles: if he raises the dead, feeds the hungry, gives sight to the blind, he must be divine!

But at Christmas the sign is weakness, simplicity, poverty.  That is the proof.  That is the miracle.

All the more strange: do the shepherds need any more “sign,” any more proof, than to see “a multitude of the heavenly host”?

They say, “Let us not go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.  And they came with haste”!  . . . “and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.”  That’s it.  That’s all we see at Christmas.  Oh, Mary and Jesus are beautiful beyond all telling . . . but only if we can see the beauty in their poverty.

Already the Cross is foretold: more deeper than suffering, it is a sign of the poverty of the Word made flesh.


Last week, for Christmas, I didn’t get to write anything for this website.  That wasn’t my plan.  These are my favorite days of the year; I relish the challenge of pondering them and trying to write about them.

I got to Mass some of the days, but not all.  My prayer was good in some respects, but greatly interrupted – by family.

Christmas Eve was the apex – and the nadir.  We had big plans to go to a magnificent Mass at a beautiful festive church in New York City . . . and we blew it.  Nothing more to say: we just didn’t think it through, and we failed.

Instead we were at our poor homely parish, humdrum, mostly empty.

Christmas this year – as many great events, most years, and indeed, much of my daily routine – was full of disappointment.  Full of weakness, and poverty.

I cannot sing Gloria like the angels – how I would like to!  I don’t celebrate Christ with the magnificence that belongs to him.


But this is Christmas.

God made man sounds pretty awesome.  Everything human is united to God.  Man is lifted higher than the angels: our music, and culture, and good works are made divine!

But that isn’t Christmas.  Christmas is God made small, God made simple, God made poor.  Christmas is God made near me, who am not yet magnificent at all.

It means, on the one hand, that he is willing to work with us where we are: not yet magnificent.

And it means, on the other, that the magnificence of God is most truly found not in the grandeurs of man, but in the poverty of Jesus and Mary.

How are you tempted to overlook the poverty of Christmas?`

Aparecida on “Suffering Faces that Pain Us”

brazil-popeToday we delve into the Aparecida document’s teaching on the “preferential option for the poor.”

Aparecida frames the question in terms of “Jesus at the service of life.” There are other ways to phrase it.  We can think about loving the Church, and then focusing on the parts of the Church that we find most difficult to love.  We can think about loving the image of God – the human nature taken up by Christ, designed for fulfillment by his divine nature – and focusing on the faces on which it is hardest for us to see that image: “Jesus in his most distressing disguise,” said Mother Teresa.

But Aparecida poses the question of “Jesus at the service of life.”  The whole third part of the document is “The Life of Jesus Christ for our Peoples.”  Do we believe that Jesus is for all people?  Do we believe that he truly brings life to all?  Do we believe that all can be saved?

Do we believe that Jesus brings the fullness of life?  Do we know that he can heal all ills, no matter how deep, and no matter what kind?  And do we live for that fullness of life, or do we prefer the pseudo-fullness of life without Christ?


In one of the most stirring passages of Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis wrote:

“I want to say, with regret, that the worst discrimination which the poor suffer is the lack of spiritual care. The great majority of the poor have a special openness to the faith; they need God and we must not fail to offer them his friendship, his blessing, his word, the celebration of the sacraments and a journey of growth and maturity in the faith. Our preferential option for the poor must mainly translate into a privileged and preferential religious care.

“No one must say that they cannot be close to the poor because their own lifestyle demands more attention to other areas.”

First: to say our lifestyle demands attention to other areas is to say that we find our happiness not in what Jesus offers, but in what man offers.  The poor are important precisely as those who are too difficult, and those who have little to offer us.  We would rather be with those who are easier, more fun.  But if Jesus is life, we don’t need to be so stingy.  We should fear that stinginess.

HomelessParis_7032101Second: do we see that “discrimination” of the lack of spiritual care?  If we really live for evangelization, let us evangelize those whom no one else cares to evangelize.  And let us not say that the poor are too difficult to evangelize.

The poor are a privileged place of encounter with Christ precisely because avoiding the poor and pursuing privilege, in all its forms, means denying Christ.


Francis goes on to say, “I fear that these words too may give rise to commentary or discussion with no real practical effect.”  This is a struggle.  It seems easy to talk about the poor, hard to do anything.


But Aparecida’s way of framing the question might provide a helpful middle ground. The section is entitled, “suffering faces that pain us”:


  1. Kingdom of God and Promoting Human Dignity
  2. Suffering Faces that Pain Us

i.      Street people in large cities

ii.      Migrants

iii.      Sick people

iv.      Addicts

v.      The imprisoned


Perhaps the language is a little saccharine, bleeding heart.  (Though remember that “bleeding heart” is first of all a description of Jesus.)  But being “pained” is the middle ground between just talking about things and doing things.  On a biological level and all the way up, pain is motivation to move.

So let us not stop with “commentary or discussion” – but let us begin there.  Let the faces of the poor pain us.


Aparecida helps to stimulate us by offering a concrete list.  “The poor” is pretty vague.  But think about migrants – take the time to contemplate their face.  They are people whom poverty has forced to leave their home, to go somewhere they do not know, where they often do not speak the language and may not be welcomed.  We can talk “immigration policy.”  But more importantly, let us spend time being pained by their suffering.

So too with addicts and the imprisoned.  Yes, on one level we can blame them.  But let us also see their suffering, the suffering of a broken life.  The first step towards reaching out – and, really, the heart of reaching out – is to love.  That begins with feeling the profound need of the poor: with letting their suffering faces pain us.

Mercy, misericordia, is a heart (cordis) stirred by other people’s misery.

Can we imagine Jesus bringing healing even to the suffering faces that pain us?  What would it do to our prayer life, and our active life, if we spent some time imaginging that healing?

St. Vincent Ferrer on Living Poverty

Pope Francis has called for a Church that is “poor, and for the poor.” Somehow that comes across as liberal, when in fact it is profoundly traditional.

The following is an excerpt from St. Vincent Ferrer, the great Dominican missionary of the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. In this chapter, he is discussing love of neighbor – and somehow all of his points come down to an embrace of poverty.

His words are so provocative, I hardly know how to introduce them. In short, he teaches us we should be much more worried than we typically are about how materialism gets in the way of love. Materialism that makes us focus on things rather than people, and materialism that view people in terms of their things – so that we Americans are strangely unwilling to preach the Gospel to anyone but the rich and powerful.

I should add that he lived at a time of horrific poverty: no one who can read these words on the internet can dare to tell St. Vincent that we need to make sure to take care of ourselves.

st-vincent-ferrer-preachingFour dispositions are needed:

1. To consider yourself a stranger on the earth, so that whatever you possess therein may appear to you to belong to others rather than to yourself, that you may feel no more attachment to them than you would to the possessions of a person who lives far from you.

2. To regard a superabundance of things for your own use as hurtful to you as the subtlest poison, and to view it with as much alarm as you would a rocky sea on which it is difficult to escape being shipwrecked.

3. To accustom yourself, in the use of things that are necessary, always to feel the effects of poverty and want, poverty being the mysterious ladder by which we safely ascend to heaven, to be possessed of eternal wealth.

4. To shun the pomp of the rich and powerful ones of the earth, without, however, disdaining them, and to let it be your glory to associate with the poor, your joy to remember them, to see and converse with them, however denuded of everything, neglected, and despised they may be, since, by these very circumstances they are the living expression of Jesus Christ; they are kings, whose society should be to you a special honor and a subject of great joy.

-St. Vincent Ferrer, OP (1350-1419), “On the Dispositions that We Ought to Have in Regard to Our Neighbor,” in Treatise on the Spiritual Life

Pope Francis on Hearing the Cry of the Poor

Pope Francis reminds us that charity is practical. It means hearing the cry of those in need, and actually responding. It is important to make sure our spirituality is pulled out beyond looking into the mirror into loving our neighbor, especially our neighbor in need.

It is important, too, what he says at the end: we are not looking just to hand people bread – though the hungry need that, too. We are looking to help people find dignity, which includes real employment. Let us have the courage to daydream about real ways we could use our skills to help others find that dignity.

pope francisSometimes it is a matter of hearing the cry of entire peoples, the poorest peoples of the earth, since “peace is founded not only on respect for human rights, but also on respect for the rights of peoples”. Sadly, even human rights can be used as a justification for an inordinate defense of individual rights or the rights of the richer peoples. With due respect for the autonomy and culture of every nation, we must never forget that the planet belongs to all mankind and is meant for all mankind; the mere fact that some people are born in places with fewer resources or less development does not justify the fact that they are living with less dignity.

It must be reiterated that “the more fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods more generously at the service of others”. To speak properly of our own rights, we need to broaden our perspective and to hear the plea of other peoples and other regions than those of our own country. We need to grow in a solidarity which “would allow all peoples to become the artisans of their destiny”, since “every person is called to self-fulfilment”.

In all places and circumstances, Christians, with the help of their pastors, are called to hear the cry of the poor. This has been eloquently stated by the bishops of Brazil: “We wish to take up daily the joys and hopes, the difficulties and sorrows of the Brazilian people, especially of those living in the barrios and the countryside – landless, homeless, lacking food and health care – to the detriment of their rights.

“Seeing their poverty, hearing their cries and knowing their sufferings, we are scandalized because we know that there is enough food for everyone and that hunger is the result of a poor distribution of goods and income. The problem is made worse by the generalized practice of wastefulness”.

Yet we desire even more than this; our dream soars higher. We are not simply talking about ensuring nourishment or a “dignified sustenance” for all people, but also their “general temporal welfare and prosperity”. This means education, access to health care, and above all employment, for it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labour that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives. A just wage enables them to have adequate access to all the other goods which are destined for our common use.

-Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium

St. Thérèse of Lisieux and the Preferential Option for the Poor

therese-childOur Lenten call to almsgiving is no side issue. All the saints love the poor. Today let’s look at Thérèse of Lisieux, someone we might not think of in this connection. But in her autobiography, we see that active love for the poor is a constant throughout her life, from her upbringing by her beatified parents to her life in Carmel.

I remember the Sunday walks when my dear Mother always accompanied us; and I can still feel the impression made on my childish heart at the sight of the fields bright with cornflowers, poppies, and marguerites. Even at that age I loved far-stretching views, sunlit spaces and stately trees; in a word, all nature charmed me and lifted up my soul to Heaven.

Often, during these walks, we met poor people. I was always chosen to give them an alms, which made me feel very happy . . . .


I do not think I have told you that in our daily walks at Lisieux, as in Alençon, I often used to give alms to the beggars. One day we came upon a poor old man who dragged himself painfully along on crutches. I went up to give him a penny. He looked sadly at me for a long time, and then, shaking his head with a sorrowful smile, he refused my alms. I cannot tell you what I felt; I had wished to help and comfort him, and instead of that, I had, perhaps, hurt him and caused him pain. He must have guessed my thought, for I saw him turn round and smile at me when we were some way off.

Just then Papa bought me a cake. I wished very much to run after the old man and give it to him, for I thought: “Well, he did not want money, but I am sure he would like to have a cake.” I do not know what held me back, and I felt so sad I could hardly keep from crying; then I remembered having heard that one obtains all the favours asked for on one’s First Communion Day. This thought consoled me immediately, and though I was only six years old at the time, I said to myself: “I will pray for my poor old man on the day of my First Communion.” Five years later I faithfully kept my resolution. I have always thought that my childish prayer for this suffering member of Christ has been blessed and rewarded.


Léonie had also a very warm place in my heart. . . . I remember perfectly the day of her First Communion, and I remember also her companion, the poor child whom my Mother dressed, according to the touching custom of the well-to-do families in Alençon. This child did not leave Léonie for an instant on that happy day, and in the evening at the grand dinner she sat in the place of honour.


During the illness of a poor woman, I interested myself in her two little girls, the elder of whom was not yet six. It was a real pleasure to see how simply they believed all that I told them.


thereseI ought to seek the companionship of those Sisters towards whom I feel a natural aversion, and try to be their good Samaritan. A word or a smile is often enough to put fresh life in a despondent soul. And yet it is not merely in the hope of giving consolation that I try to be kind. If it were, I know that I should soon be discouraged, for well-intentioned words are often totally misunderstood. Consequently, not to lose my time or labour, I try to act solely to please Our Lord, and follow this precept of the Gospel: “When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends or thy brethren, lest perhaps they also invite thee again and a recompense be made to thee. But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the blind, and the lame, and thou shalt be blessed, because they have naught wherewith to make thee recompense, and thy Father Who seeth in secret will repay thee.”

What feast can I offer my Sisters but a spiritual one of sweet and joyful charity! I know none other, and I wish to imitate St. Paul, who rejoiced with those who rejoiced. It is true that he wept with those who wept, and at my feast, too, the tears must sometimes fall, still I shall always try to change them into smiles, for “God loveth a cheerful giver.”

Almsgiving and the “Preferential Option for the Poor”

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

These last few Thursdays during Lent, we have been considering the traditional pillars of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. There is perhaps a hierarchy in how much we typically associate these things with Lent. Everyone knows Lent is about fasting – or at least giving something up. And maybe some people of an old-fashioned bent make Stations of the Cross part of Lent, so there’s some prayer. But almsgiving? Other than hearing it as part of that three-part list, we don’t hear much about it.

It is an essential part of our tradition, however. Next week, we’ll look a little at some examples of the “preferential option for the poor” in the tradition. I hate to tell you, my friends, but the “liberals” who talk about the poor are, at least on this issue, way more “traditional” than those “conservatives” who don’t.


Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Notice that these things relate to the three key people in our lives. Prayer is about our relationship with God. Fasting is about our relationship with ourselves. Almsgiving is about our relationship with our neighbor. It’s no surprise that these three would all fit together as key to growth in the Christian life. The neighbor, you may have noticed, is pretty central to Jesus’s teaching in the Gospels, to the rest of the New Testament, and to the Catechism.

The deepest importance of our neighbor is devotion to the Church itself. St. Thomas says love of neighbor comes in insofar as when we love someone (e.g., Jesus) we also love the people they love (i.e., everyone he died for, which is everyone). It makes no sense to say we love God but we aren’t interested in the people he died for.

To say the same thing in a different way, Christianity is about communion. Philosophically, the heart of the matter is that God is the kind of good that is not diminished, but more deeply possessed, by being shared. If I give you a bite of my apple, I have less apple. But if we pray together, or I share the Gospel with you, I do not have less God. I know him and love him better by sharing him with you.

Or to put it a third way, Christ calls us into his body, the Church. Our approach to God is through Christ, and through his Church. To love our neighbor is to love the Church; to despise our neighbor is to despise the Church, and so despise our membership in Christ.

Love of God and love of neighbor, in short, are inseparable.


But why almsgiving in particular? Why the poor?

The answer is simple. Jesus says, “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Mt 5:46) And “when you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you” (Lk 14:12-13).

To love someone who can repay you is ambiguous. Do I love the person (and the Church, and Jesus, and God), or do I just hope I’ll get repaid? To love those who have nothing to repay is to underline, and practice, true love, just love.

It’s as simple as that. The modern Church calls this “the preferential option for the poor,” but it’s ubiquitous in the tradition. The poor, those who have nothing to repay us, have a special claim on our love, because that is where we practice truest love.

“Preferential option for the poor” doesn’t mean socialism. But it does mean that in every part of our life – including public policy and economics – we put love first, not self-interest.

I have been struck to realize that, but for me, my wife and children are widows and orphans, and so I can bring this option for the poor to my own family. But if it is so spiritualized as to lose track of real, crushing poverty, real need and a real inability to pay, we weaken our ability to live this love in our ordinary life.


This Lent, let us make some effort to try it out. To at least take the first steps toward planning something, sometime, when we practice loving those who have absolutely nothing to give us in return.

What can you do to practice disinterested love? How do you relate to the genuinely needy?

Pope Francis on Christ’s Poverty

pope francisPope Francis’s Lenten messages asks us to consider the poverty of Christ. It is good to meditate on Christ’s love for us – and to learn from his example what it means to love others.

By making himself poor, Jesus did not seek poverty for its own sake but, as Saint Paul says “that by his poverty you might become rich”. This is no mere play on words or a catch phrase. Rather, it sums up God’s logic, the logic of love, the logic of the incarnation and the cross. God did not let our salvation drop down from heaven, like someone who gives alms from their abundance out of a sense of altruism and piety.

Christ’s love is different! When Jesus stepped into the waters of the Jordan and was baptized by John the Baptist, he did so not because he was in need of repentance, or conversion; he did it to be among people who need forgiveness, among us sinners, and to take upon himself the burden of our sins. In this way he chose to comfort us, to save us, to free us from our misery. It is striking that the Apostle states that we were set free, not by Christ’s riches but by his poverty. Yet Saint Paul is well aware of the “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph 3:8), that he is “heir of all things” (Heb 1:2).

So what is this poverty by which Christ frees us and enriches us? It is his way of loving us, his way of being our neighbour, just as the Good Samaritan was neighbour to the man left half dead by the side of the road.

–Pope Francis, Message for Lent, 2014

Pope Francis on Lenten Poverty

pope francisIn his message for Lent, Pope Francis asks us to think of Lenten penance in terms of poverty and true riches. We give up what doesn’t matter in order to remember what does truly matter: “For there is more to life than food, and more to the body than clothing” (Luke 12:23):

Christ’s poverty is the greatest treasure of all: Jesus’ wealth is that of his boundless confidence in God the Father, his constant trust, his desire always and only to do the Father’s will and give glory to him. Jesus is rich in the same way as a child who feels loved and who loves its parents, without doubting their love and tenderness for an instant.

Jesus’ wealth lies in his being the Son; his unique relationship with the Father is the sovereign prerogative of this Messiah who is poor. When Jesus asks us to take up his “yoke which is easy”, he asks us to be enriched by his “poverty which is rich” and his “richness which is poor”, to share his filial and fraternal Spirit, to become sons and daughters in the Son, brothers and sisters in the firstborn brother (cf. Rom 8:29).

It has been said that the only real regret lies in not being a saint (L. Bloy); we could also say that there is only one real kind of poverty: not living as children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ.

–Pope Francis, Lenten message 2014

Wrapped in Swaddling Clothes: Poor and for the Poor

swaddlingFor you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ
That, though he was rich,
Yet for your sakes he became poor,
That you through his poverty might be rich.

-2 Corinthians 8:9


For Christmas, two images for Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.

First, he who is infinite constrained himself. The great Marian hymns of the Middle Ages love this theme:

O happy Mother, you are blest
Enclosed beneath your lowly breast,
Lies God, creator great, who planned
The world he holds within his hand. 

Your arms the great Creator pressed,
Asuckling at your sacred breast
Whom earth and sea and sky proclaim,
The Ruler of their triple frame,

He unto whom their praises rise,
Within the womb of Mary lies.
Her womb, the seat of ev’ry grace,
Is now the Lord’s abiding place;

That Lord to whom the sun by day,
The moon by night, their service pay.

Through him all things were made. And he is tied up in swaddling bands. They are an image of the death wrappings. But an image also of infancy. In either case, the purpose of swaddling cloths is to bind up, contain, restrain. Also to warm one who is cold. Jesus became poor and little for us: in the womb of Mary, and wrapped in swaddling clothes.


Second, it is Mary herself who wraps her child. “She brought forth her firstborn son; and she wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).

The medieval tradition, perhaps a little closer to real life, notices something. My wife and I have had five children; one was a c-section, two were homebirths, two were with a midwife in a hospital. One of the homebirths, the midwife didn’t make it in time. But through all these experiences, one thing my wife herself has never been up for is wrapping up her own newborn.

Is this making too much of a verb? It says “while they were” in Bethlehem “the days were fulfilled that she should be delivered. And she brought forth . . . and she wrapped him, and she [anyway, the verb is singular] laid him in a manger.” The “they” disappears. Not “Joseph wrapped him,” not “the midwife.” Mary wraps and clothes her own child.

(By the way: I am not a farm person, but wouldn’t any manger that holds enough hay for barn animals be big enough for mother to lie with child? I don’t know. The Greek verb is about “sitting up” in the manger . . . .)

The medievals see in this a sign of Mary’s dignity, the grace bestowed on her by Christ.

She is poor. So poor she has to give birth in a manger, without so much as a midwife. But Jesus, who is always for the poor, cares for her – not externally, but internally. He doesn’t give her a midwife. He gives her the strength to give birth and care for her child, and wrap him and care for him herself.


Two chapters before St. Paul tells us that Jesus “became poor that you through his poverty may be rich,” he describes himself: “as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things” (2 Corinthians 6:10).

The grace of Jesus leaves us poor, with no room in the inn. And he makes us rich, so that we can love, and care for our children, and spread the riches of Jesus to others.

Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes became poor: the infinite constrained. But by his poverty he becomes so close to the poor that we become rich: represented by Mary, strong enough to swaddle her own baby – and Paul, rich enough to share the graces of Christ with us. These days, you don’t need to be rich or poor to use baby slings, they’re making a come back! You know what they say, history reapeats itself. You want to see what your baby would look like in a Munchkin jelly bean reversible sling, so do we!