I have told the story before of the bible study group meeting among the favelas, the dwelling places of the poor, in Brazil. They were discussing the Christmas story of the birth of Jesus, and the leader of the group asked them: “Why do you think Jesus chose to born among the poorest people in Israel, and with a manger for his bed, instead of in some comfortable, luxurious hotel? As they considered the question, one of the group responded: ”It was to show the rich that we poor are important to God.” As they thought about it some more, another member of the group answered, “No. It was not just that. Jesus wanted to show us poor that we are important to God.”
The poor are important to God.
St Augustine wrote that God sent his Son into the world to “defend the poor”. When Pope Francis was elected pope, one of his close companions said to him “Don’t forget the poor”. Some say that this was the reason why he chose the name “Francis” as his papal name, in memory of St Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the poor. We all know that Pope Francis has always striven, even before he became pope, to seek to defend the dignity and rights of the poor. As pope, he chose to live in a home with other priests, instead of the luxurious papal apartments. He visited prisons, and washed the feet of prisoners during the celebration of Holy Thursday one year. He chose to put aside the traditional red shoes a pope wore, because they were a reminder of the red shoes traditionally worn by an emperor in the past. He would sneak out of the Vatican at night, much to the chagrin of his guards, to visit the poorer areas of Rome. In so many ways, Pope Francis strove to proclaim that the poor are important to God. Again and again, he has told us that we must, in our evangelization, go to those on the periphery of society- the drug addicts, the indigenous, the migrant, and so on, to tell them by our words and example “You are important to God, and also, to me“.
The psalms themselves say the same thing: ”The Lord hears the cry of the poor”. Or again: ”The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed”. Or again, “The helpless commit themselves to you, Lord, you have always been the helper of the orphan”. Or yet again “Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up, “ says the Lord, “and I will place them in the safety for which they long”. One more example: ”Father of orphans and protector of widows, such is God in his holy place, he gives the needy a home to live in”. I could go on and on with quotations like these. It was part of God’s commandments that the Israelite people should take care of the poor in their midst. In fact, God’s Law prescribed that there should be no needy person in all of Israel because the poor were charged with their welfare.
It was the special duty of the king to ensure that the people kept this law, so that the rights of the poor were not trampled on, especially in the courts, where the judge’s responsibility was to make sure that justice was done for the lowliest. Because so often in Israel’s history, the kings failed in their duty towards the poor, there grew up in Jewish cult the yearning for a true descendant of King David to ascend the throne and rule with righteousness and compassion. This king would be the longed-for Messiah of Jewish hopes, the Savior that God would send to deliver Israel, and especially the poor, from their oppressors. Psalm 72 is perhaps the best articulation of this desire and this hope. ”Give the king your righteousness, O God…may he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor … for he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy … from opposition and violence he redeems their life, and precious is their blood in his sight“ (Psalm 72).
The coming of the Messiah of God, according to the prophets, would be good news, especially to the poor. When the prophet Zephaniah urges Jerusalem to exult and sing for joy in our first reading today, it is because , as he declares, “the king of Israel, is in your midst, he has turned away your enemies, and you shall fear disaster no more”. But Zephaniah specifically addresses “the daughter of Jerusalem” and “the daughter of Zion”. The title “daughter “ of a city was given specifically to the poorest and lowliest members of that city, its outcasts and despised ones, including those who failed to match up to the ideal of the devout Jew, such as tax collectors, prostitutes, beggars, and those with any kind of physical or mental defect. The “daughter” of the city referred to those who were forced to live outside the city gates. If an invading army came against that city, who do you imagine was going to be right in the line of fire ? Yes, the “daughter” people . If that city was under siege, and food was rationed, who do you think were not ever going to receive any food ? Again, it would be the poor, the “daughter”
Yet, it is to this disregarded, despised and outcast people that the prophet Zephaniah, (and he is by no means the only prophet sent to Israel to warn them of the consequences to come to them because of their neglect of the poor ,) it is to this “daughter” people that Zephaniah addresses his good news: “Your God is with you ; he has not forgotten you . No, he is coming to save you? You are important to God”. Daughter Zion, to quote the words of our responsorial canticle today, from the prophet Isaiah, “great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel”.
Christians have always believed that the prophecies of the coming Messianic king were fulfilled by Jesus. In fact ,the very word “Christ” is not a surname, but a title . Jesus the Christ.“Christ” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew “Messiah”. Both mean ‘anointed one” or “chosen one”. In order to be able to show that Jesus was, and is, the Messiah of Israel’s hopes, the first Christians had to show that he fulfilled the expectation of the Jews that he would be especially the champion of the poor. Since “the poor” included both materially poor, but also socially poor, that meant he had to have a special regard for those on the periphery of society, including , as I said earlier, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the physically and mentally defective. Every healing Jesus performed removed the stigma from the injured person of being not fit, not worthy to be part of the chosen race, the Jews. It was an act of love and compassion, but it was also a declaration to the Jews, especially to their religious leaders: “do not dismiss this leper , this woman suffering from haemorrhages, this man with the withered hand, this blind man, this cripple, this woman with the hunched back . They , also, are part of the children of Abraham”
Who were the first to receive the news of the birth of Jesus ? The king, the chief priest, the Pharisee, the rich and powerful elite ? No, it was, as you know, the shepherds. Why is that so important ? Precisely because shepherds were nobodies, they fed their sheep on pagan fields, which made them unclean, they could not perform the essential duty of the faithful Jew, of going to the Temple of Jerusalem three times a year to celebrate the great feasts of Yahweh. Of course, they couldn’t. They had to take care of their sheep. Remember the woman caught in adultery, how Jesus protected her from the crowd who wanted to stone her. Without Jesus, she would have had no protector, no one to take her part. Not that Jesus condoned her behavior- he said “Go and sin no more”. But he forgave her, and gave her another chance , a new lease of life.
We could go on and on with examples, but the truth is blindingly obvious. If care for the poor and lost are defining characteristics of God’s Messiah, his Savior, Jesus amply fulfilled those expectations. Why was Jesus born in absolute poverty, and lived his life on earth among the poor ? Why did he die on the cross, stripped of everything, clothes, dignity, reputation, justice, the butt of everyone’s hatred, and ridicule , with no one to defend him, or ensure his rights ? To show the rich and powerful that the poor are important to God. And to show the poor of this world that they are important to God.
And to show to us, to you and me, that we may not be poor financially or materially. But we are poor morally. We carry sin within us, and that sin impoverishes us , robs us of the righteousness and purity that baptism provided for us, but which we have thrown away). But precisely because we are poor also, Jesus was sent to defend us also, to protect us from our oppressors and enemies, which are the world, the flesh and the devil. St Paul makes the point so eloquently in his second letter to the Corinthians:”For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” ( 2 Corinthians 8: 9) . Rich in what ? Rich in God’s GRACE, which can be rendered “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense”. G R A C E. What grace? The grace, the free gift, of God’s Holy Spirit, to make us holy by washing away our sins and freeing us from the dominion of sin and hell. The richness of grace which comes from Christ emptying himself, impoverishing himself, on the cross, of everything, including his very lifeblood, so we can be saved. St Paul says it even more powerfully and profoundly in 2 Corinthians 5: 20-21 :”For our sake, God made Christ to become sin, so that in Christ we might become the righteousness of God”. The divine exchange. At the cross, Jesus takes on himself our poverty, our disgrace, our sin, and gives us instead his righteousness, his holiness, his salvation. What we could not do for ourselves, because of the poverty and weakness of our sin, Jesus has done for us.
So , brothers and sisters, when we come to the crib in a few days time, as we look on the poverty of the manger scene, tell yourself “Jesus did all this for me, who am a poor sinner, to show me that I am important to God.” And bow or kneel, and give thanks .