What words best describe Christmas? Humble faith? Immense hope? Great joy? Endless peace? Perhaps all of these? What about two other perhaps shocking words: ordinariness and poverty? These two words convey, at a very deep level, the meaning of Christmas.
The feast of Christmas invites us — indeed compels us — to recognize Jesus in our poverty and ordinariness.
Jesus was born into a poor family and in a manger because there was no room for him in the inn. The God who is born into our world is born into a world that has no room for him.
It is still the same today. Our society at this moment is trying to take Christ out of Christmas with “holiday trees” and “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” The pace of our own lives can be so busy that we don’t have time for prayer, worship or reconciliation — perhaps even each other at this time of year. Our priorities get lost and we get distracted and confused.
Because our world is selfish, sinful, in love with power, wealth and status, Jesus must come into it uninvited. Because Jesus is meek, gentle, forgiving and pure love, just the opposite of what the world obsesses about, he cannot be at home in this world. Yet as God he must be in it, so his place is with the others for whom there is no room — the poor, the discredited, those who are marginalized.
This is a message our culture doesn’t want to hear, but needs to hear. The poor more easily make a place for God in their lives. Their stables and mangers are more available for God’s birth than our hotels, boardrooms, casinos, bingo palaces and extravagant homes filled with status symbols.
In our lives and in our world, so often, there is no room at the inn, no place to welcome God who wants to be born into it. As it was at the first Christmas, the Christ Child today must be born outside our cities, among the poor. So, to find him ourselves, we must let ourselves be led by the poor, the children, our own brokenness and poverty, to the mangers of our world today.
Christmas is nothing out of the ordinary. After the birth of Christ, we need not look to the extraordinary, the spectacular or the miraculous to find God. God is found where we live — in our kitchens, at our tables, in our wounds and in each other’s faces.
This is hard to believe and has always been hard to accept. When Jesus was on earth, virtually no one believed that he was the Messiah, precisely because he was so ordinary, so unlike what they imagined God to be. They had expected a superstar, a great king, someone who would finally get rid of the Roman oppressors and restore Israel to its previous power and glory. Preaching mercy, gentleness, forgiveness, unconditional love and total non-violence, Jesus did not live up to those false expectations.
According to St. John of the Cross, “God has spoken so completely through his own Word that he chooses to add nothing. He spoke partially through the prophets, but has now said everything in Christ. Anyone seeking some new vision or revelation from him would commit an offence, for instead of focusing his eyes entirely on Christ he would desire something other than Christ, or beyond him. Fix your eyes on Christ alone for in him all is revealed and in him you will find more than you could ever ask for or desire.”
The second reading speaks of “he who will redeem us from our iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own.” One of the best ways for us to meet Jesus is to do just that — let him redeem us — save us from our sins, and heal us, transform us into a new creation.
We do that best by celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation. There we face our poverty, our sin; we name it and share it and receive his transforming forgiveness. To experience the joy of forgiveness, healing and reconciliation is one of the best ways to experience the joy of Christmas before we celebrate it ritually and liturgically as we are doing now.
Father Bob’s mother had Alzheimer’s disease for many years before she died. When he visited her she did not know who he was. He found that the only way he could interact with her was to feed her at meal times. That forced him to slow down, and there he found Christ — feeding his own mother and getting in touch with his own mortality. Through that experience he slowly realized that he needed her poverty, her brokenness, because he was too busy, too efficient and out of touch with a deeper reality of humanity and love.
Love is a thing that happens in ordinary places — in kitchens, at tables, in bedrooms, in workplaces, in families, in the flesh. God abides in us when we also abide there. Through the Incarnation, God crawls into ordinary life and invites us to meet him there, in our own poverty and the poverty of those around us.
The eucharist we celebrate now is another powerful hint at this mystery that Christ is found in the poor and the ordinary. These humble, ordinary gifts of bread and wine will be transformed through the prayer and faith of the presider and the community, into the Body and Blood of Christ. If we receive them with repentant, humble faith, then we are transformed into the Body of Christ, sent to be light to a sometimes very dark world.
So, may our faith and our celebration of Christ’s birth help us to recognize and experience Christ who is born into our own poverty and ordinariness. Christmas is about being poor enough to recognize our need for Jesus, and nothing out of the ordinary.
May God bless us all with his forgiveness and healing, his peace and joy, this Christmas and throughout the New Year.
Sylvain Lavoie, OMI, Archbishop Emeritus of the Archdiocese of Keewatin-The Pas, is chaplain at the Star of the North Retreat House in St. Albert, Alta. He continues to live out his motto, Regnum Dei Intra Vos (the kingdom of God is among you), which is his overriding focus and passion.