Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Poor and Christmas

It goes without saying that Christmas is the most widely, and most elaborately, celebrated holiday of the year. Many of you are right now making final feverish attempts to get ready for Christmas. (In fact, my guess is that because of the bustle of the season, some of you won’t see this until after Christmas.)
It also goes without saying that Christmas is very highly commercialized. If fact, the strength of the national economy is indicated by, as well as influenced by, the amount of spending at Christmas.
A poll taken a month ago indicated that shoppers around the country were planning to spend an average of $882 for gifts this holiday season. That was a significant increase from the $431 in 2009 when the economy was so bad, but still somewhat below the record of $1,052 in 2001.
 (I wonder why it was so high then, just after the 9/11 attacks.)
With all of this spending, Christmas is a hard time for those who are poor. I feel sorry for parents, especially single moms, who have children at home. Because of peer pressure and constant advertising on television, most children seem to want, and expect, an awfully lot for Christmas.

I was amazed by some of the letters to Santa I saw in my hometown newspaper. Some asked for so much it would cost the average amount of $882 just to give them all they wanted.
There were, happily some exceptions. I was impressed with one boy who asked for “a pair of slippers and a good Christmas.” He may well have a better understanding of Christmas than most.
As Charles Pope, a prominent D.C. Catholic priest, has recently pointed out, poverty was an intrinsic aspect of the original story about the birth of Jesus. 
The first Christmas was anything but charming or sentimental. It is charged with homelessness, hardship, a lack of decent resources, disregard for human life (by Herod), and the flight of the Holy Family as refugees and aliens in a foreign land.
In spite of all the pictures of Mary riding a donkey to Bethlehem, Pope doubts that that was her mode of travel. Donkeys were expensive, and he thinks it is more likely Joseph pushed her in a cart in that long, 70-mile trip from Nazareth.

And the reason proper lodging could not be found may have had more to do with money than space. Pope suggests, “Lodging could likely have been found for the right price.”

Then when Jesus was grown, he talked much about the poor. Soon after he began his public ministry, in his hometown Jesus read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, . . .

And then Jesus added these important words: ““Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it” (Luke 4:17, 21; CEB).
Soon after he began preaching in public, Jesus declared, “Blessed are you who are poor, / for yours is the kingdom of God.”
Last December, Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle (who I am hoping will be the next Pope) said,
Christmas is never truly Christmas if we do not practice Jesus’ solidarity with the poor, the weak, and the neglected. Christmas is a season to see our own poverty, to see a companion in every person who suffers and to see Jesus in a needy brother or sister.
Those are important words to keep in mind this week—and all next year.


  1. Not to mention Mary's song upon hearing about her pregnancy extolling the regard for a lowly handmaiden, scattering the proud, putting down the mighty, exalting the humble and meek, filling the hungry, and sending the rich away empty. Thanks, Leroy, for the reminder.

  2. Anton, thanks much for making this helpful addition to my article. Certainly concern for the poor it as the heart of Mary's "Magnificat."

    I made reference to that in my blog article five years ago, and I commend that posting to you and other readers. The link is

  3. A theory about 2001: folks postponed a lot of regular spending — despite President Bush urging us to overcome our fears with shop therapy — and decided to catch up at Christmastime. Also, to understand our indulging our children — and grandchildren — at Christmastime, think of the example of the Three Wise Men bringing gifts to the Christ child. As a grandparent of a new grandson, I can attest to the human impulse of generosity/extravagance to one's own offspring. Our marketing professionals have capitalized on this impulse and extended it to older folks and to ourselves. "Don't we deserve this?" It's one of those paradoxical impulses: if we don't consume enough, unemployment and poverty increase; if we consume too much, we destroy our biosphere. If we hold up frugality as higher value than profligacy, we may harm the poor more than our charity can help. The Gospel of Jesus may not spell out a single economic model as the optimum way to structure our society to build the Kingdom or "Kindom" of God. For 20 centuries we've been muddling through, and we're not finished yet. (One typo: "hoppers" should be shoppers!)

    1. Thanks, Phil, for pointing out something of the complexity of the issue. Certainly every major issue is many-sided and we (I)must always beware of suggesting answers/solutions that are too simplistic.

      On the matter of giving to our children (and I know well what you are talking about), I was impressed with this article by a person who says he is not a Christian:

  4. This is a good but very limited run at the mission behind the incarnation.
    Jesus Christ certainly did arrive in an amazing manner and fulfillment of prophecy, but it could have been worse.

    The point I see is that He came to save all of humanity, not just the poor. He was very positive in outreach to Greeks, Samaritans, Phonecians, Romans, wealthy business and land owners, well-connected political families, the Jewish high council, Roman soldiers, even the Roman Governor himself. He was after all of them and us! (Including the poor, the lepers, the imprisoned.) Any other view of His Kingdom is just as heretical as the prosperity gospel. Thank you, God!

    Christ's disciples would go on the reach out to all, including magistrates and Kings, turning the world upside down from top to bottom.

    And yes, you are right, we are called to serve, not just believe.

    Merry Christmas!!

  5. Well stated Leroy! Here is one of my favorites for Advent:

    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 the 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

    1. Thanks so much, Larry, for sharing Romero's significant words.

      Your posting this when you did serves as a good counterpoint to the comments by 1sojourner.

  6. Thinking Friend George Takashima, who is a pastor in Canada, sent me a nice, newsy email that included the following comments:

    "I have read your blog and I concur with your thoughts on the poor. Absolutely no arguments here. We need to get back to the real meaning of Christmas from the Christian standpoint. I say this because there is another aspect of Christmas which is very much secular."

    1. Very well put. We had a Lutheran missionary from Japan come speak to our 4th & 5th grade Sunday School class about Christmas in Japan. It was a slap in the face, sounding so much like secular Christmas in the United States. How have we strayed from the incarnation of a loving, almighty God - creator who came to save His creation?

    2. Well, most of the people (97+%) of Japan are not Christians, so it is understandable why it would be a secular celebration there. (Merchants know how to make money.) What is strange is how it is so secular here in the U.S. with a majority of the people being Christians, at least in name.

      Many of my Japanese friends, though, posted pictures of the Christmas Eve services held in their churches. It seems that still, as it was when we were there, the churches are full for the celebration of Christ's birth on Christmas eve.

  7. I got nailed in the first paragraph. I did not read this until after Christmas!

    Earlier today I read the article in Time about the choice of Angela Merkel as Time's Person of the Year. A key theme was how her experience growing up in East Germany shaped her decision to welcome the Syrian (and other) refugees into Germany, to the amazement and consternation of many other world leaders. These refugees would gladly pull their families in a cart for 70 miles to reach their Bethlehem. In fact, most are enduring much worse.

    The most welcoming countries on earth are Lebanon and Jordan, that have accepted refugees for decades in numbers simply unbelievable for the small sizes of the countries. Turkey and the EU have more absolute numbers, although proportionately much less. Then there is USA, the country that shudders in fear that Obama might let 10,000 Syrians into the country next year. By comparison, Germany expects about one million this year. Our zero-tolerance policies have run amuck in many areas, from decisions to bar tens of thousands of legal voters from voting out of fear that one or two might vote illegally, to the fear that out of those 10,000 one or two might be terrorists. Yet terrorists in both Europe and America are far more likely to have entered by other means than refugee status, if they were not actually native-born.

    It makes me feel so sad to listen night after night as Syrian families explain, in perfect English, that they are studying German or Swedish during their exodus in hopes of using it in their new homes. What a shame that no country can find a use for intelligent, kind families with perfect English! As Merkel is quoted in the December 21 Time article (page 96), "Fear has never been a good adviser, neither in our personal lives, nor in our society." Personally, I tried to study German in high school and college, and it was not my most successful subject. My Christmas prayer is that these Syrians have a much easier time with German than I did!