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?`

eric.m.johnston

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