Friday, December 20, 2013

Christmas with the poor

It is truly an article of faith that poverty is central to the theology of Christmas. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states it thus: “Jesus shares the life of the poor, from the cradle to the cross.” [Catechism of the Catholic Church 544.] Blessed John Paul II reiterated this doctrine, preaching 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.Benedict XVI has pointed to the fact that Jesus was born into a poor family surrounded by “the poor, and anonymous shepherds ... The little ones, the poor in spirit: they are the key figures of Christmas, in the past and in the present.”  Pope Francis explains the implications from this fact: “to be like Him we must not put ourselves above others, but rather lower ourselves, putting ourselves at the service, making ourselves little with the little and poor with the poor.”
Archbishop Óscar A. Romero of El Salvador was even more succinct in his formulation: “the Christ of Bethlehem is the divine summation of my entire Gospel preaching,” said Romero. [«Orientación» Weekly, December 25, 1977.] Explaining in more detail, Romero states that, “based on Bethlehem Christians can no longer invent another Christ or another liberating doctrine apart from the authentic Gospel: the Gospel of poverty and austerity, detachment and obedience to the will of the Father, of humility and of the path to the beatitudes and to the cross.”  Id. From poverty and humility to the cross, there is only one step, announced Ab. Romero: the rejection of a world not ready to accept the scandal of a lowly, humble Lord and God.  Like Christ the Church grows during the darkness of night. The Gospel of Saint John says: ‘He came into the world but the world did not know him’,” preached Romero.
To avoid this ignorance, this lack of understanding, Romero announced the “good news” in the most concrete and urgent language of which he was capable and proclaimed, “Christ was not born twenty centuries ago; Christ is born today in the midst of our people.” He says this to give greater effect to his words not to “look for God among the opulence of the world, or among the idolatries of wealth or among those eager for power or among the intrigues of the powerful.”  To do so would be wasted effort: “God is not there. Let us look for God with the sign announced by the angels: resting in a manger and wrapped in swaddling clothes made by the humble peasant woman of Nazareth—poor swaddling clothes and a little hay on which this God-made-man rested, on which this King of the ages becomes accessible to humankind as a poor child.” In today’s world, we should “look for him among the children lacking proper nutrition who have gone to sleep this evening with nothing to eat. Let us look for him among the poor newspaper boys who sleep in the doorways wrapped in today’s paper. Let us look for him in the shoeshine boy who perhaps has earned enough to buy a small gift for his mother. Let us look for him in the newspaper boy who, because he did not sell enough papers, is severely reprimanded by his stepfather or stepmother.”
In a famous and widely quoted phrase, Romero said that “no one can celebrate an authentic Christmas unless they are truly poor.” Applying the social doctrine to what the Catechism says, the Martyr Bishop explained that, “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.” And in words astonishingly laden with common sense, he explained, “people have no desire to eat when they are not hungry. People also have no need for God when they are proud and/or self-sufficient. Only the poor, only those who are hungry can be satisfied.”  And he gives us this Christmas beatitude: “Blessed are those who see the coming of Christmas in the same way that those who are hungry see the gift of food. People cannot desire liberation or freedom unless they are conscious of being enslaved.”
When Benedict XVI inaugurated a 2009 Christmas lunch with the poor, recognizing this important note of the social doctrine at Christmas, he said, “I have come to you precisely on the Feast of the Holy Family because, in a certain way, you resemble it.” The Pope Emeritus’ words remind us of what Archbishop Romero had said thirty years earlier: “Tonight the people of El Salvador are very much like Jesus in Bethlehem, for we are a poor people and we present ourselves to God in the same way that Mary and Joseph and Jesus presented their poverty to God.”

Archbishop Romero reminds us that the poor draw us closer to Christmas and to God.

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