According to Luke’s gospel it “came to pass” that while Mary and Joseph visited Bethlehem, “the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
And it also came to pass that my wife and I visited New York a few days last week. It is about as far from “O Little Town of Bethlehem” as you can get. Christmastime in Gotham is quite unlike anyplace else. The tree in Rockefeller Center with those million warm spots in chilly night is bigger. The playthings at F.A.O. Swartz and the toys of a different kind in the windows at Tiffany’s are more breathtaking. The plunder, the much-ness, the over-the top-ness of a modern American Christmas pours out through the revolving doors and onto the sidewalks in New York this time of year. It is a Revelation. An Epiphany. As we were being pushed along by the crowds on Fifth Avenue we heard a piercing female voice squeal over the tumult—“My god Versace!” And I thought–Yes, Virginia, there is more than just one god who reveals himself at Christmas.
But no, beloved, this not going to be another rant about the materialism that pervades this season in America. Everyone knows that our celebration of Christmas has become crass and vulgar. And some people even care. Nice people like you do care, of course. We would like to get behind all the illusion to what is real, and in doing that the Christmas story from Luke’s Gospel is a good place to begin. It is so familiar it hardly bears retelling. Yet do we really know the story at all? It is like one of those fake department store presents that never gets opened. It sits under the artificial tree in the front window, a box wrapped up in gorgeous paper and tied with a splendid bow. But the wrapping is all that seems to matter. No one bothers to look inside.
But the box is not empty. No, not by a long shot. There is something inside, hidden in darkness. In fact, the box is moving. It is filled with Life. Real Life—not visions of sugar-plums and legends of jolly elves and flying reindeer. The Christmas story St. Luke tells is about as harsh as can be imagined. We have enrobed it in chocolate and dusted it with sugar so often that it is hard to know how it was intended to taste. But when he first told it, it certainly had a sharp and bitter tang.
Jesus, St. Luke informs us, was born in the most squalid conditions, in a stable of some sort, like a cave, among animals–and hardly better than one of them. Everything in the story points ahead to the impending tragedy. This is a child born to die. The newborn is wrapped in “bands of cloth,” like a corpse, and laid “in a manger,” a stone feeding trough resembling a stone sarcophagus, foreshadowing his burial in a borrowed tomb.
The evangelist Luke is always especially concerned with people in real need—the destitute, the sick, widows and orphans–and his nativity story is about the extremes to which want can drive ordinary people. It is about a homeless couple struggling to take care of a newborn in a cruel and indifferent world. It is about a band of vagrants, despised migrants, caring for flocks that did not belong to them, forced by necessity to sleep in the open fields at night. They were visited by messengers from God with “good news of great joy.” But if there is comfort and joy to be found in this story it comes as a surprise, like finding a rare jewel lying amongst the soiled straw and manure of a barn floor.
It is a story about poverty, which, for all the wrong reasons, we have made into something else—an orgy of Victorian sentimentality and an excuse for miserable excess. The story has been transformed into a charming fairy tale about sissy angels and talking animals and little princes in disguise–which is precisely what it is not. Stripped of the “shmalts” in which we clothe it, the circumstances of Jesus’ coming could hardly be more humble and debased.
My wife and I took in a Broadway show while we were in New York—“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” A theatre critic called it “a rollicking story,” with “humor of the most delectable amorality, and the cleverest lyrics assembled in a quite a long time.” And the lyrics are indeed clever. For example, one of the characters, a daffy English aristocrat–Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith– sings a song called, “I Don’t Understand the Poor,” that goes something like this–“The lives they lead/ Of want and need!/ I should think it would be a bore./ Oh, I don’t understand the poor.”
None of it is intended to be taken seriously, of course. The joke is on the callous rich. They’re rich, after all—they can take it. And at the price of Broadway tickets, the poor aren’t going to be there to take offense. So there is this ridiculously posh snob in his scarlet hunting attire swinging a poor dead fox about, and complaining about how being “so debased/ Is in terrible taste.” We all laughed and no one bestowed much attention on the words.
It was just a fluffy little number in a bantam-weight musical comedy about serial murder. But it is weighty without meaning to be, and the problem it reflects is the heaviest one of all, beloved. We don’t understand the poor, and therefore we don’t understand ourselves. Even the destitute are often pretty clueless when it comes the meaning of their poverty, though admittedly they have more firsthand experience of it. So they do understand that there is nothing sweet or charming about it. Real want is squalid, ugly, brutal and, most of all, it is frightening. To be in real poverty is the most frightening thing we can experience this side of the grave, and as close as anyone can get to death and still be alive.
That is surely part of the reason we sentimentalize the Christmas story so ruthlessly, beloved. We make it into what it is not to protect ourselves from what it is. It is common and indelicate. As Lord Aldabert sings, “to be so debased,” is “in terrible taste.” Nevertheless, it endures—often wrapped in corny sentiment but undiminished in power. We are drawn to it by the Holy Spirit as part of the ultimate human tragedy, the self-sacrifice of the Greatest and the Best. His birth is a spectacle as crude and as enthralling as his Cross. And behind the plaster store-bought figures of the manger scene–Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, the shepherds and the angels–lies a idea that merits a lifetime of reflection—the poverty of God.
That God reveals himself to us as needy would probably come as a surprising and rather shocking idea to many. If they give it any thought of all, most people think of God in terms of limitless riches. There is a whole cult of self-improvement out there called “the prosperity gospel,” which professes to teach people how to use piety to leverage some of God’s wealth for themselves. But you, beloved, can see through all that. You already know that the Jesus of the Gospels was a poor man who did not live and die to catapault us into the upper tax brackets. Jesus was always poor, from birth, and his poverty speaks to our own.
The truth is, although it ranks very high among most people’s priorities, in reality wealth means nothing very much in the long run. Money is one of our own creations, not one of God’s. It gives us a temporary security, but, as has often been observed, it cannot buy real happiness. Money can indeed buy many interesting forms of unreal happiness. But happiness in the ultimate sense is a way of being, not of having. It is a relationship that satisfies an interior need we have.
And, of course, wealth it is also unfaithful. In the end, after all the trouble and bother we take with it, it lets us down. “We brought nothing into this world,” St. Paul says, “and it is certain we can carry nothing out of it” (1 Timothy 6:7). We work so hard and so long to fill our existence with things in order to the emptiness in ourselves. Some of us do very well at Monopoly, beloved. We may amass a big heap of money and property. As my brother expresses it—The one who dies with the most toys wins. But it will never be wealth that defines the essential reality of our lives, beloved, no matter how much we have. It is poverty that embraces us. It is what comes before, and it is what will follow after. And what is true of our lives is true of the whole Creation—there was nothing before it and there will be nothing afterwards. Poverty embraces it.
In the beginning, according to the Book of Genesis, “the earth was a formless void.” And God created everything that is out of nothing in order to fill that void in one big bang. But why in heaven’s name? Why anything? Now it is a pretty laughable business for any of us to try to penetrate the mind of the Ultimate Reality. Who are we, anyway?
Who indeed! But we do have our own experience to work from, and the scriptures do say we were made in “the image of God.” So there must be some point of contact between us. And there is nothing more fundamental to our humanity than the experience of want, and our longing for something to fill that emptiness. Want activates all we do. With his last breath Martin Luther is supposed to have said: “We are beggars. This is true.”
We are poor, beloved, and before all else and after all else God is too. And his poverty is what makes creation understandable. God was driven to it by want. All the wonders of the created universe are the expression of his desire to satisfy his need to fill the loneliness of infinity. We ourselves are the product of his need. He made us to fill his own emptiness. If there is any rhyme or reason for our human lives, it is to answer God’s need for company in eternity.
And it is what made his Incarnation, his desperate attempt in Jesus Christ to befriend us, necessary. In Jesus Christ God shows us that he shares our poverty. All of us who share a certain religious background can rattle off that verse from John’s Gospel—“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him may not perish but have everlasting life.” But why such love for our insignificant planet? Why should God willing to undertake such a painful rescue with such a measly result. Why? Because God needs us, and he created us to need him.
Of course you don’t have to accept my explanation. Everyone gets a shot at answering the greatest of all questions—Why is there anything? And does anything have any meaning at all?
Religious people are always telling us that we need God, but to the pious it seems in peculiarly bad taste to say that God needs anything at all. But to me that is exactly what seems to be the case. I don’t understand the poor. I admit it. None of us do. Not even the poor. But poverty is the key to it all. That is the message of Christmas–God not only emptied himself in Jesus Christ, but in Jesus Christ he also revealed his own emptiness. In his birth he showed himself to be as poor as we.
To me that is what the story means. And to me the best way to celebrate that story is not sentimentalize it, but to accept want as our common experience. It is what binds us to each other—and to God. We are all beggars. And each of us is called upon to recognize not only in our own way, but together. Not alone. Never alone. Because there is a cold wind blowing through the universe, beloved, and the best we thing we can do is cling to each other for dear life. Love is all we have.
There is literally nothing else.