The Art and the Hours – The Poverty of Christmas Part II

by Br. Gilbert Heater, OSB

Christmas is a time for celebration in the Word made flesh, but it is a celebration of smallness and weakness . . . of a God who entered into the fullness of our human poverty. I think it is no accident that during the Christmas Octave the Church remembers the martyred Stephen and Thomas, the exiled Evangelist, and the Holy Innocents. Poverty and sorrow temper, yet do not diminish this time of joy. It is such a beautiful and humanizing thing, because our own joy is softened by experiences of vulnerability and sin and loss. For many, this is the season when we feel most helpless and wounded and poor. This can be a time of painful memories, of the awkward and unreasonable shadows of grief, of loneliness that fills our day with empty space devoid of life and hope, of the intolerable weight of things uttered or left unsaid. This is, perhaps, made worse as our culture desperately trumpets a cacophonous mandate of happiness it neither possesses nor understands.

Christmas is a time of joy, but it is the paradoxical joy of love and anguish, of life and death. It is a joy that flows in mingled blood and water and a joy that gives up everything, hoping for that which remains unseen. And in the Christmas season we see the joy of Christ, King of Kings, being born into the utter depths of human poverty, almost completely unnoticed by the world he came to save. The joy at the manger has room for loneliness and grief, for broken dreams and lost hopes, for it is a joy of love and love conquers all. But love conquers in poverty; Jesus enters into everything we are afraid to feel, into the unknown places of our hearts where we are terrified to look. And he takes our wounds and holds them to his own so that even in the bitter abyss of grief we can find him waiting and loving and delighting in our presence.

For those who struggle during the Christmas season, perhaps there is some comfort to be found in the voice of the psalmist who cries to the Lord “I call with all my heart; Lord, hear me. I rise before dawn and call for help, I hope in your word. See my affliction and save me, by your promise give me life. In your mercy, give me life (119:145-160).” These words are brought to life through the glorious and heart-rending music of the German Baroque composer Heinrich Schütz. This setting of Psalm 119 was his final composition, written in lonely isolation by an old man once the most prominent musician of his time, but disheartened and forgotten as culture and musical tastes changed in the aftermath of the Thirty Years War. Well aware that his hour was past, Schütz composed this Opus ultimum in the dignified gravitas of the old art knowing he would never hear it performed. His consciously outmoded style communicates not with his contemporaries, but with Eternity. Surely it is no coincidence that in the culmination of his life he turned to Psalm 119, the great torah Psalm which in some ways sums up the whole of Scripture, a pensive contemplation of what it means to live in relationship with God.

This Psalm is full of trust, but it is also a cry of weakness and poverty. It reminds us that it’s okay to enter into the dark places of our soul for it is God who came there first to meet us, loving us, seeking us, and waiting for us. There are seasons in every life where we know God best in emptiness and anguish, in those places where we have no words but can only sit and allow Jesus to sit beside us. For even sorrow is a sacred exchange of love within our souls, an unrequested poetry that may take from us our words but brings us to Jesus who is not afraid to linger there in silence, sustaining us, understanding us, and loving us. Christ has come, and he has come for you, his beloved child. Enter and find him in your poverty and there you will find the joy of the Father who delights in you.