A few days ago, Fr. Casey Cole, OFM, tweeted that, “If the story of Christmas doesn’t shake you, you might be missing the point.” He linked to a video that conveyed the familiar scold that, instead of focusing on gifts and warm and fuzzy messages, we should remember that the Christmas story tells us how the Son of God came to the world amidst poverty and persecution.
Pope Francis voiced a similar sentiment in a Christmas Eve homily. “He who was born in the manger, demands a concrete faith, made up of adoration and charity, not empty words and superficiality,” the Pope told his largest post-pandemic Christmas Eve audience. “He who lay naked in the manger and hung naked on the cross, asks us for truth, he asks us to go to the bare reality of things, and to lay at the foot of the manger all our excuses, our justifications and our hypocrisies.”
It might do us good to gaze upon the Creche as St. Francis wanted us to, and to meditate upon the poverty of the Nativity the way we ponder the sorrows of the Via Crucis. According to St. Bonaventure in “The Life of Saint Francis”, after he set up his famous first Nativity Scene in Greccio, the Man of Assisi “preached unto the folk standing round of the Birth of the King in poverty.” All the while, St. Francis, “filled with tender love, stood before the manger, bathed in tears, and overflowing with joy.”
The Nativity Scene, to be sure, speaks of a poverty—and of a wealth. Christ, as St. Paul tells the Corinthians, “though he was rich, he became poor” in order to enrich us (2 Cor 8: 9). That wealth is implied, but unseen, in the Christmas Creche. There are marvelous signs – the star, the angels, the wise men – that speak of Christ’s greatness. But, like the glimpse of godliness later granted to the disciples at the Transfiguration, these signs are dispensed so discreetly that only the little ones take note.
Even though pomp and grandeur are played down in the Christmas story, we sometimes forget that. Ironically, the fine artistry of our nativity figurines or their sprawling displays sometimes give us the erroneous impression that the scene depicted is supposed to be grandiose. It was for this reason that St. Oscar Romero (cited by Pope Francis in his Christmas Eve homily) warns us not to look for Jesus “in the beautiful images of nativity sets but look for him among the children lacking proper nutrition who have gone to sleep this evening with nothing to eat.”
If Christ’s wealth is played down in the Christmas story, his poverty is all too conspicuous and it is a three-faceted poverty: material, political, and spiritual. Joseph was a ‘tekton’ or “handyman,” a manual laborer. The stable, the rough wood of the manger, the company of the shepherds, all point to the world of the marginalized. In the words of Benedict XVI, “The little ones, the poor in spirit: they are the key figures of Christmas, in the past and in the present.” In Bethlehem, a backwoods of Judaea, far away from the palace intrigue of the court of Herod, baby Jesus could not be farther from being a “king.”
There is also a spiritual abasement. Even though angels proclaimed his arrival, in the temple, his presentation was made with turtle doves, the accepted substitute for those who could not afford the traditional sacrificial offering of a lamb (Lk 2:24). But Mary makes clear in her “Magnificat” that God chose “the lowliness of his handmaiden” on purpose: “The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty” (Lk 1:53).
As Pope Francis noted in his homily, “Jesus was born poor, lived poor and died poor.” St. John Paul II was even more categorical, declaring that “Christ who was rich became freely poor, was born in a lowly manger, preached liberation to the poor, identified with the poor, made them his disciples and promised them his kingdom.”
In a famous and widely quoted phrase, St. Romero explained why “no one can celebrate an authentic Christmas unless they are truly poor.” You have to be like the poor to need God, Romero explained, to be ready to receive him. “The self-sufficient, the proud of heart, those who despise others because they do not possess the material goods of this earth, those who do not need or want God—for these people there is no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, and those who need someone to come to them because they have need of someone, someone who is God, someone who is Emmanuel, God-with-us—only these people are able to celebrate Christmas.”
Image: Bernardo Strozzi – Adoration Of The Shepherds [c.1615]. By Gandalf’s Gallery. Via Flickr. License: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
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Carlos X. Colorado is an attorney and blogger from Southern California. He tracked the canonization of St. Oscar Romero in his «Super Martyrio» blog from 2006-2018. He is a member of the board of the St. Thomas More Society of Orange County, a Catholic lawyer group.