“For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for your sake he became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” — 2 Corinthians 8:9
A few years ago, I went on vacation with a friend of mine, also a priest, to Yosemite National Park. The park, of course, is stunningly majestic, and perfect for picture-taking. My photographic interests are quite limited, and consist mainly of beautiful scenery, buildings, and works of art. I don’t take many pictures of people. So, I was perfectly happy to stop every couple of minutes as we traveled around the park to take pictures of the mountains, waterfalls, sequoias, and all the awesome natural sites we came across.
But my friend was taking a different approach on this trip. A couple of times early on in our visit, he asked me to pose for pictures next to, or in front of, some natural wonder. I thought this was a bit peculiar, so I more or less said “what the heck” to my friend.
He explained to me that he wanted me to stand near these wonders of nature so that anyone who looked at the picture could appreciate the mammoth size of what he was photographing. For example, a photo of a stand of sequoias looks only somewhat impressive when it is pictured alone. But when you see a person standing next to it, and that person looks like a little toy or figurine next to these gigantic trees, you begin to appreciate what you are looking at.
There are some things that are just too big for us to comprehend. The height of a mountain, the depth of an ocean, the distance from the earth to the sun, the amount of money involved in the national debt (perhaps that’s a bad image for Christmas, sorry). When we try to think about such vast realities in isolation, we struggle to wrap our minds around them. Yet there is nothing greater, nothing that more surely eludes our grasp, than God.
It is very interesting that on Christmas, we begin to think about God by looking at a Baby, in a manger, in a stable with his mom and dad, in the little town of Bethlehem. And we very often make an emphatic point of how poor everything is. That there was no room for Mary and Joseph at the inn. That they were not important people in the eyes of the world. That Mary had to give birth to her Child in a shelter for animals, and place the Baby in a feeding trough. And their only company was made-up of a few farm animals, and later some shepherds. That is about as poor as it gets.
All of this is true, and it is important to think about the fact that Jesus comes to us as a poor little Child rather than as a great and powerful worldly king.
But it is also important to remember that the real poverty, the real humility, of the Son of God is about becoming human at all. The difference between being a great king and a poor baby is nothing compared to the difference between being God and being human. The difference between being rich and powerful vs. poor and weak is like me at Yosemite National Park, standing next to the mountain of difference between God and humans.
Jesus coming to us as a poor and weak Child gives us a sense of the scale, a sense of how great is the journey he has made in becoming one of us. That’s how much God loves us. He loves us enough to humble himself more than we can possibly imagine. We cannot imagine it, but we need to believe in it.
How can we believe in something we can’t imagine? We believe in it because we believe in him. That is why Jesus lived a whole life among us, teaching us, giving us an example of holiness, showing us what true love is by suffering and dying for us, showing us what true power is by rising from the dead. All of this begins at Christmas.
When we talk about the importance of being “poor in spirit,” the importance of sharing in Christ’s simplicity, the point is not just to join Jesus’ socioeconomic status. The point is to be like Jesus, to have a soul like Christ’s, a heart like Christ’s, one that is humble and loving even to the point of self-sacrifice. Only then can we become spiritually rich in the way God wants us to be.
This is also why critiques of materialism at Christmastime are not just whining. It really is dangerous to make the celebration of God’s poverty and humility all about our personal enrichment. Don’t get me wrong: exchanging gifts is a wonderful practice, but we need to cultivate a spirit of poverty in ourselves.
We need to know how to give things up. We need to find time for silence in our lives. We need to say “no” not only to bad things, but even sometimes to the good things that could still distract us from God if we let them. It is good, even important, to enjoy Christmas. But enjoyment is about joy, not pleasure. And joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit living within us. And the Holy Spirit acts on us to the exact degree that we become like Jesus Christ.
During this time of the new evangelization, we talk a great deal about what it means to share Christ with other people. There is no better gift we can give than Jesus, and we will give him best if we are as much like him as we can possibly be.
The feast of Christmas imparts to us simple truths about the goodness and love of God, and our need to share his truth, goodness, and love. Sometimes it is the case that simple truths are made trite by misuse, by failure to recognize the depth of the mystery of the Incarnation. If there is a blessing that can come from dark times such as the Church has experienced this year—and there are always blessings God brings out of evil situations—one such blessing is that dark times purge what is trite and superficial from our spiritual lives. We are thrown upon the unfathomably deep mystery of our incarnate Lord Jesus Christ.
As a Child in the manger, as our King on the Cross, and present on our altars in the Holy Eucharist, he is the one Lord and Savior of us all. What a blessing it is to think of how poor the Almighty Lord becomes for us, and how rich he makes us.
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