The Gift of Poverty (homily)
It’s worth remembering on this Feast of the Holy Family that the Holy Family was a poor family, very poor, and a family living under tremendous stresses and fears. And I think it’s possible that this is the point: not that they were holy in spite of this poverty but because of it.
Behind the readings for today I’ve been hearing a passage from Paul’s first letter to Timothy about the dangers of wealth. “We brought nothing into the world,” Paul tells us, and “we can take nothing out of it,” and that’s a good thing. Poverty is a good thing--not poverty in the sense of hunger and want so extreme that we lose our dignity and our selves. We have to have food and clothing, Paul says. But as long as we do, as long as our basic needs are met, “let us be content,” let us stop striving for more, for “people who long to be rich are prey to temptation, they get trapped into all sorts of foolish and dangerous ambitions,” and of course Paul isn’t just talking here about the desire for material wealth but the desire for anything false, for admiration, or approval, or prestige.
This is the kind of poverty we should strive for, a poverty of spirit, as Matthew puts it in the first Beatitude. Blessed are the poor in spirit--blessed, that is, are the humble-- because they haven’t allowed themselves to get caught up in all the wrong things.
Again I wonder about the spiritual value of the economic crisis in our country now and our world. I don’t mean that God intended this to happen exactly or is punishing us or is bringing about the end times, but I do mean that God speaks to us through our lives, in everything that is happening, and this is what’s happening to us now, this economic disaster, this shrinkage, this threat, and it’s happening to us as families this season, this season when the consumer culture is as always trying to trick and deceive us.
What we can we learn from the Holy Family? What did they do when they were driven from their homeland, when the innocents were slaughtered, when their world was torn apart? We know, for one thing, that they observed “all the prescriptions of the law.” They stayed in the community, they obeyed all the customs, they prayed. Tradition pulls all kinds of pious and sentimental images of the Holy Family from the few hints about them in the scriptures, but I don’t think those pious images are far off. I think the Holy Family was holy, was remarkable, because they were focused on what in their poverty they had to focus on: on each other and on God.
In 1883, in England, the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins writes a letter to his beloved sister Grace trying to comfort her in her grief. Her fiancé has just died, the man she loves above all others, and Hopkins says this to her, of all things: blessed are they who mourn. Blessed are you, Grace, for in mourning we are all brought closer to God. In Liverpool, where he serves as a parish priest among the unbelievable slums, Hopkins puts this idea in a homily. Why, he asks, does God permit terrible things to happen? “Because if we were not forced from time to time to feel our need of God and our dependence on him, we should most of us cease to pray to him.”
This is what the Holy Family knows and feels. Hopkins is a Jesuit, and has made the radical choice, and as harsh as it sounds, he knows it too: that it’s only through our struggling that we are led to joy, because it’s only through our struggling that we can ever come to terms with our radical dependency on God. “God is for us a refuge and strength,” the Psalmist says: “a helper close at hand, in time of distress, / so we shall not fear though the earth should rock, / though the mountains fall into the depths of the sea.” Even then, and therefore especially then: we know there is God, and only God.
I know families torn apart by alcoholism. I know families torn apart by sexual abuse. I know families torn apart by bankruptcy. What did we think, that we would be the only people on earth immune from suffering? That we out of all of the people who have ever lived would not be pierced by the sword that pierces Mary, too, and Joseph, and every other mother and every other father in history up to the present moment? We all have to watch our children suffer: in love or in work or in simply growing up.
Look at Abraham, wandering in the desert. He is supposed to be the father of the nations, but where is he? He is nowhere. He is 99 years old, Sarah is 99 years old, and they are childless, they are living with absence, they are living with impossibility, in the darkness. And it’s exactly here and exactly now that the promise is made again. At just this moment. Abraham, come out and look at the darkness. Look up at the sky.
What did we think, that our jobs define us? Our professions? Our careers? So when we lose our jobs, we lose our selves? We are no longer loved by God?
I don’t think it’s an accident that Christmas comes in the darkest time of the year. Partly this is because Christianity took over a pagan ritual for the solstice, but there’s wisdom and grace in this, and in the season. The world is teaching us. The world gets darker and darker, the nights longer and longer, and there’s nothing we can do about it. The planet is going to spin whether we like it or not. We have no control over any of this finally, and that’s the source of the joy that finally comes. We’re free.
It’s the night sky that God shows to Abraham. It’s all the stars. It’s the way the stars make us feel both insignificant and ennobled, both at the same time, crushed and raised up.
So let us take every opportunity that comes to us this season to conform ourselves to the pattern of the stars. To the pattern of loss and of gain. To the pattern of the cross. Let us pray as St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, invites us all to pray, to our Holy Mother, that she will intercede for us that we might receive the gift of total dependency on her son; that we be so detached from all things that we can put all our talents and possessions and achievements at the service of Christ; and even in the end, if it be not sinful, if it be God’s wish for us, that we might be given the courage and the strength to endure the very poverty of the son. Even this. As gift. A poverty.
And we pray for this in hope. We pray for this out of our deepest desire. For the days now are getting longer. Every day they are getting longer. For there’s not just darkness, there’s light. There’s not just desolation, there’s consolation. There’s never one without the other, ever, and that, too, is the source of our joy, even if we have to wait for it, even if all our lives are a kind of advent, a kind of waiting. There is always joy, too. Because He has come and He is here. The light in the darkness. The freedom that comes from surrendering, and only from surrendering.
The Lord of all become a Little Child. A helpless little child. A human being.
So may we all become little children. So may we all become human beings.