The Gospel readings at Mass on Christmas give us a broad sampling of the stories about Jesus’ birth. Matthew and Luke present traditional Infancy Narratives, while John’s Gospel presents a theological perspective on Jesus’ origins.
In the ancient world, Infancy Narratives were written routinely about royal persons, great military leaders, and influential individuals. Powerful leaders were portrayed as being precocious children, destined for greatness. The Infancy Narratives in the Gospels serve a similar function: they foreshadow Jesus’ destiny to be the Suffering Servant of God.
The Infancy Narratives in the Gospels also address the individual church communities to which the Scriptural authors wrote. Luke’s Gospel, for example, emphasizes God’s preferential treatment of the poor. Obviously, this was a reflection of the very modest circumstances in which Jesus was born and ministered. It was also a reflection of the fact that Luke’s church community experienced themselves as outsiders, disenfranchised, and impoverished.
The Gospel authors’ intention in addressing the Infancy Narratives to their respective congregations was to help those congregations identify with Jesus’ birth and life so that they could identify with Jesus’ death. The manger and shepherds in Luke’s Infancy Narrative, for example, are symbols both of Jesus’ poverty and the poverty of spirit required of his followers. The Infancy Narratives intend to draw us into the physical circumstances of Jesus’ life so that we can see these circumstances as revelatory of his destiny, his vocation, and the salvation he won by his death.
This year, this Christmas, it ought to be especially easy for us to identify with the modest circumstances of Jesus’ birth and the difficulties faced by his family. The pandemic has impoverished us all – if not financially, then certainly in terms of the richness of our social lives. Like Joseph and Mary, we’ve been forced to travel to a destination we would never have chosen for ourselves. Like Jesus, we have been relegated to very modest circumstances; some have even encountered deprivation, humiliation, and loss. The pandemic has taken away much of what we formerly considered to be “normal” in our lives. And like the gaudy Christmas themed sweaters that make great gag gifts (and sometimes, sadly, serious gifts), the pandemic isn’t going to improve soon.
Now, if we stop there, Luke’s Infancy Narrative hasn’t brought us to its intended goal. The intended goal is to help us see in the poor and in our own poverty the circumstances that reveal God’s victory over sin and death. Instead of settling for sentimentality this year, or falling into self-pity, we have an opportunity to experience God’s favor.
What if all the material, social, intellectual, and spiritual wealth that we accumulate is nothing more than an obstacle that prevents us from seeing the presence of God in our lives? While created things are often described as reflections of the Creator, created things are too often mistaken for the Creator. Sometimes, the finite world points toward God and, at other times, it points us away from God. The physical world, then, is an ambiguous sign; it can’t be relied upon to provide perfect knowledge of God. The very modest circumstances of Jesus’ birth provide a corrective to the ambiguous nature of created blessings. Jesus’ poverty is a reminder that created things are neither God nor guarantees of God’s salvation.
God comes to us through world events and created things, but God is not contained by those events and things. The ambiguous signs that surround us intend to point us beyond mere created things. In order to see beyond created things, we must be willing to see the spiritual poverty of created things. Luke’s Gospel emphasizes the poverty of Jesus for just this reason.
God comes to us because of our poverty, not because of our wealth, self-sufficiency, self-satisfaction, or success. The celebration of the Savior’s birth invites us to see in Jesus’ poverty the possibility for redemption in the midst of our spiritual poverty. As challenging as our present circumstances are, perhaps they hold also the promise of an encounter with God. If we can see the deprivations caused by the pandemic as opportunities to identify with Jesus’ poverty, we might also see the many ways that the Savior identifies with our spiritual poverty. In doing so, we will begin to see Emmanuel, God-with-us.