Homily: The Poverty of the Son
Sunday, January 7, 2018 (December 25, 2017, OS): The Nativity of Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ; The Adoration of the Magi: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar.
Ss Cyril & Methodius Mission, Madison WI
Epistle: Galatians 4:4–7
Gospel: Matthew 2:1–12
Christ is Born!
Poverty, economists remind us, is always relative. We need to avoid the temptation of thinking of poverty only in monetary terms. Limiting poverty to merely the absence of material wealth, we risk overlooking the fact that it is in the nature of human beings to be poor.
What I mean by this is that, in the beginning, when God “the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7), He created Adam in need. We see this in the Hebrew word translated as “living being” or sometimes “living flesh,” nép̄eš a word that connotes “neediness.” It is sometimes used to describe things like a flute or the throat, things that function — are only themselves if you will — because they are empty.
As it comes from the hand of God, it is in Adam’s nature to be poor.
Far from being a hardship, this original poverty means that all that humanity has, all that Adam and all of his descendants have, we have as a gift of God. My natural talents, my spiritual gifts, my family, and my very existence all these are God’s gift to me even as all that you have is likewise His gift to you.
When in the hymnography of the Church we hear that the Son becomes poor for our sake. This isn’t primary referring to material wealth. If Jesus was born in a palace with the Theotokos lying in a bed of finest linen, attended by the best physicians and with midwives who washed the Newborn Child with water poured from vessels of gold, we would still say that the Son was born in poverty.
The simple reason for this is that to be human means to be empty or, if you will to be poor. And while Adam rejects his own poverty, his own radical dependence on God, in the Incarnation the Son freely embraces all this “for us and for our salvation” as we say in the Creed.
In the faith of the Church, humanity’s poverty is a fitting vehicle for the revelation of God. Our poverty reflects the supra-abundance of the divine nature.
And this, in turn, means that Jesus not only reveals the Father to us, He reveals us to ourselves. To say that humanity is created in the image of God means that we are created according to the pattern of Jesus Christ Who is Himself the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” St Paul goes on to say of Jesus that
…by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything (Colossians 1:15–18, NKJV).
In becoming Man, the Son doesn’t cease to be God, He doesn’t cease to be the one through Whom all things are created and in Whom all “all things are held together.” Rather, in taking on our humanity, the Son takes on our poverty, our dependence on God. And as we see in the events of Holy Week, He also takes on our vulnerability to our indifference and cruelty.
It is God’s embrace of poverty that troubles “Herod the king … and all Jerusalem with him.” St John Chrysostom says that Herod and Jerusalem are troubled because like the Hebrew children in the desert they are in the grip of “idolatrous affections.” Once again they are more inclined toward “the fleshpots of bondage” than the offer of that “new freedom” that allows them to cry out “Abba! Father!”
Chrysostom goes on to say that Herod and all of Jerusalem “were on the point of having everything going their way.” Even though “they knew nothing” yet about the Incarnation, if they only “formed their judgments … on the basis of self-interest,” the fact that the mighty Persians came to worship this Newborn King should have strengthened their faith in God and their hope for liberation from Roman tyranny. That they were troubled the saint says means that their hearts were dull and marred by envy, (“The Gospel of Matthew,” Homily, 6.4 in ACCS: NT vol Ia: Matthew 1–13, pp. 22–23).
Like Herod and “all Jerusalem with him,” this same envy that often mars our own spiritual lives.
Like Herod and “all Jerusalem with him,” we are tempted to prefer the passing riches of man to the poverty of God.
Like Herod and “all Jerusalem with him,” like Adam, we are troubled because we reject the poverty that the Son willingly embraces.
And yet, for all that we fail, there is hope. As I said a moment ago, Jesus not only reveals the Father to us but us to ourselves. We see simultaneously in the Face of Jesus both God the Father and our own deepest identity.
To embrace the poverty of the Son doesn’t mean to become materially destitute. Rather it means to put all that we have at the service of glorifying God and reconciling humanity to the Father and with itself
As Orthodox Christians living in America, we are members of a painfully small community. As a new mission, we are the smallest Orthodox community in the city of Madison.
But given our location on the Isthmus, we have been given the great blessing of being at the heart of not only Madison but of the whole state of Wisconsin.
God has set us aside as witness of the love of God to the most powerful voices in our city, our state and really in the nation. In calling us, God has blessed us and will continue to bless us if we remain faithful.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, the required fidelity consists merely in this: to imitate the willing poverty of the Newborn Christ Child.
Christ is born!
Originally published at Palamas Institute.