Monday, February 17, 2014

The poverty of Jesus

Pope Francis and “Jesus the Homeless” sculpture.

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Pope Francis wisely begins his First Lenten Message by asking us to focus on Christ.   In particular, the Pontiff asks us to contrast the wealth of Christ with the poverty of Christ.  Jesus’ wealth lies in his being the Son,” the Pontiff tells us: “his unique relationship with the Father” is what makes Him rich.  By contrast, Christ’s poverty “is his way of loving us” by suffering for our cause.  We could add a third facet, which would be Christ’s act of “emptying himself,” stripping himself of his godly grandeur to be incarnate among us.  Archbishop Romero gives us three visions of Christ that illuminate this point.


The wealth of Christ, centered on his role as the Son in unique relationship with the Father is revealed in the Gospel account of His Transfiguration.  In addition to being one of the first Lent readings, the episode is the basis for El Salvador’s national patronal feast and thus, Romero had been preaching on the Transfiguration since the 1950s.  When Jesus lets us glimpse a flash of the radiant light he emanates, and the voice from the clouds says, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 17:5), Romero preaches, Jesus is letting us in on the secret of His divinity, as well as giving us a foretaste of the heavenly glory to which all men are destined as Children of God.  The wealth of Jesus is a shared inheritance, because this glorification for the Son of God is the dignity that God wants for all His children, and symbolizes the perfection attained when man is elevated above the terrestrial realm and held up in the celestial plane, free of all temptation and sin.  In fact, Romero says, the image of Jesus thus exalted is the perfect icon of liberation and he goes as far as to call his preaching “Transfiguration Theology” rather than Liberation Theology because it is premised on a transcendent, spiritual emancipation.


The other image of Christ from the readings of Lent portrays Christ entering the desert to fast and pray for forty days and forty nights.  Importantly, Christ rejects the temptations of power, success and domination presented by Satan, embracing hunger, obscurity and insignificance, and thus running the same fate as the poor.  This is the poverty of Christ, and it is presented in rich symbolism to highlight the importance of this feature as a central characteristic of Christ.  Romero points out that the length of time Jesus spends in the desert—forty days and forty nights—holds great theological significance in the Hebrew Bible.  After all, Moses led the Israelites for forty years in the desert in search of the promise land, and forty days was the term that Elijah spent in his spiritual quest.  Accordingly, when Jesus later appears atop Mt. Tabor surrounded by Moses and Elijah (see previous point about The Transfiguration), it is to confirm Jesus as God’s chosen prophet.  In fact, Romero points out, in entering the desert, Jesus also figures as the New Adam, by contrast, the Garden of Eden juxtaposed against this forbidding place of wild beasts and the dead, which will bloom as a sacred garden because of Jesus’ radiant spirituality, his holy poverty.


The third, implied scene is the one that symbolizes the deliberate option by Christ to side with us, to be one of us.  For Romero, it is Jesus descending from the high place, where He communes alone with God the Father.  The gospels use beautiful expressions that describe some profound ways of seeing Jesus,” Romero tells us.  Let us behold Jesus as He comes down the mountain, as He comes down from the heights to mingle with the people” down in the valley.  The Spanish words Romero uses to express this idea are powerful: he literally says Jesus comes down to let himself be confused with the commonality of mankind.  In essence, Christ not only enters history, He blends in.  Consequently, Romero tells us, “we cannot separate the context of Jesus’ words from the whole history of Israel.”  And by extension, we cannot interpret Jesus without allowing His teachings to infiltrate the history and context of every place where His gospel is heard.  When He empties Himself, Jesus makes himself accessible to all of us.

The poverty of Jesus enriches us, because in making Himself poor to walk alongside us, Christ also shares His wealth, the spiritual treasure of His Kingdom.

Next: poverty as a valued spiritual trait in the Church.
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