Christmas is for the Poor

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Many years, I find myself reflecting on the meaning of Christmas more in the weeks after December 25th than during the hustle and bustle of carols and parties and cooking and shopping that lead up to it. There’s something about that “well, that’s it, then”-ness of the days between Christmas and New Year’s day that makes the realities of Christmas sink in. So, it’s early January, but I’m still reflecting on Christmas. (Not to mention, it’s technically still Christmas until Epiphany on January 6th, so I’m in the clear!) 

A poem from my Advent devotional has stuck with me these last few weeks. Here it is:

No one can celebrate
a genuine Christmas
without being truly poor.
The self-sufficient, the proud,
those who, because they have
everything, look down on others,
those who have no need
even of God—for them there
will be no Christmas.
Only the poor, the hungry,

those who need someone
to come on their behalf,
will have that someone.

That someone is God.
Emmanuel. God-with-us.
Without poverty of spirit
there can be no abundance of God.

 -Oscar Romero

If you’re like me, these words are difficult. What is described here is so far from our own cultural experience of Christmas, which is full of excess rather than humility. Not to mention our daily lives of self-sufficient independence. We are so bent on maintaining our self-reliance that we struggle to ask even dear friends for a small favor without feeling the need to repay them in-kind. If the words of this poem are true, then it will be very hard for Christmas to come for us, for us to know what it means that God came as our rescuer, to receive His gift. 

My favorite book by Henri Nouwen, called Gracias, is his journal from time spent discerning a call to Latin America. As he looks back on his time there, he concludes that the greatest gift given during that time was not one that he gave, but one that his friends gave to him. He writes:

In many of the families I visited nothing was certain, nothing predictable, nothing totally safe. Maybe there would be food tomorrow, maybe there would be work tomorrow, maybe there would be peace tomorrow. Maybe, maybe not. But whatever is given—money, food, work, a handshake, a smile, a good word, or an embrace—is a reason to rejoice and say gracias…

And slowly I learned what I must have forgotten somewhere in my busy, well-planned, and very ‘useful’ life. I learned that everything that is, is freely given by the God of love. All is grace.

Often times in our culture, the New Year can become a time for re-doubling our efforts at self-reliance. That’s a bit ironic, isn’t it, given the indictment that Christmas is on our ability to do much for ourselves? Christmas reminds us that we are desperately in need of someone to come on our behalf. But our lives often look like an ongoing effort to prove the opposite. 

What if, this year, we made a New Year’s resolution to become poor in spirit, to make ourselves needy, to remember that we are people who need a rescuer? I don’t know what that might look like for each one of us, but I imagine God will meet us there.