We come to the close of the season of the Church year marking the Incarnation of our Lord, at once a great mystery and a staggering reality. Of particular note in the genesis of the marking of the feast, before a fixed date, or particular customs or a developed liturgy and until today, is that the Church has always clung to the poverty of the Holy Family and the birth of the Lord. There were only two ways to be in Palestine – subsistence living or not. Those beneath subsistence living were the lepers, beggars, diseased, abandoned. While the law called for care for the widow, the orphan and the foreigner, as in our own day, there was a wide array of opinions as to what that meant. Jesus was born in poverty, a poverty of place that even in his own day would have been an unlikely choice for giving birth. Not only the conditions are poor but the birth is absent a home, family in attendance, assistance at the ready. Those who first attend are those among whom Jesus will live, the working poor, shepherds. During a dialogue in his public ministry it is to these lost sheep of the house of Israel that he tells us is called first to serve. His poverty is like theirs, not abject but persistent. His access to power is like theirs, non-existent. He works as a carpenter to keep a roof over head and food supplied. There are no amenities. No laundries, no sewers, no medical advances.
Why does it matter that Jesus is born in poverty? In choosing to become flesh in such a way, God, the creator of all, the animating force of the universe, the God of the burning bush not consumed, the God of exodus of desolation and restoration, that same God is completely emptied of all pretense to power. This, of course, is heresy to those who cannot accept a self-emptying God. To us Christians it means everything and it is the model for our lives. It is from this peripheral position, from the world’s viewpoint, that God chose to become one of us and save us. There is nothing obvious or direct about it and the path of salvation history continues not down the center of things but towards the margins, where the lives of most people are fashioned, lived and come to completion. It is there, always there, that the Church must exist in its fullness if we are to be true to the core meaning of the Incarnation. Salvation from the margins, among the margins, and from there for all the world.
Fr. Michael, c.o.