The Land of Gloom:
A passage often cited during the season of Advent is from the book of Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.” (9:1)
This passage from Isaiah resonated with the early Christians in a special way. They knew what they were being saved from. Their surroundings were a blatant reminder that human beings, left to their own devices, were capable of creating a world of darkness and gloom.
When Christ, the Apostles and the early Christians walked the earth, gladiator games were a source of entertainment for an idle mob, infanticide was socially acceptable in the most civilized parts of the world, and slavery was a universal institution. And in every continent, the human race (at least at certain times) had plunged itself into the barbaric ritual of human sacrifice.
The ancient world didn’t know it, but it was lost. What it also did not realize was that it could not save itself. Indeed, the source of its salvation had to come from outside of itself. Happily, God provided the Answer: His Son. That Answer not only had to be supernatural in essence in order that the human race be lifted out its darkness and gloom. It also had to be unworldly. That is to say, the Son of God had to be world-renouncing.
It’s not that our Lord came to reject the world. Rather, he had to be a living symbol of a happiness that existed elsewhere. In fact, Jesus prayed to the Father on behalf of his Apostles, saying, “They do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world.”
In the ages to come, the best of our Lord’s followers knew that in order to save the world, one had to die to the world. Christians, whose love of Christ was most contagious in history, lived in the world but were not of the world. The beginning of Christ’s earthly life, as well as his end, was punctuated with this paradox! This is why the Crib and the Cross has great significance in today’s world. The Crib and the Cross were two unworldly trademarks of Christ’s mission. The first is emblematic of poverty and the second one, of defeat.
Stumbling Block of the Crib:
In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola has us meditate on the Crib of Christ during Advent. And to help explain these spiritual exercises is Fr. Bertrand de Margerie, author of Theological Retreat (1976). He said, “The ‘stumbling block of the crib’ places us face to face with the mystery of a poor God. The infinitely rich is presented to us in the swaddling clothes of poverty.” The Crib of Christ was every bit as an enigma and stumbling block to the world as the Cross of Christ. Unlike the royalty of earthly kings, our Lord’s Crib suggests that the poor, the lame, the social outcasts and sinners are invited to be his friends.
More than this, the birth of Christ outside of Bethlehem also tells us that happiness and fulfillment is not to be found in wealth or material belongings. Poverty and simplicity are reminders that we are creatures in need. And the greatest need we have is the need for God. For this reason, the Catholic Church has a special affection for the poor. Indeed, every canonized Saint has had a special love and predilection for them. The poor are living symbols of that great spiritual need that resides in each and every soul.
In fact, Fr. Bertrand de Margerie suggested that the rich need the poor than the poor need the rich. “In his Church,” he said, “the privileged will be, not the rich, but the poor. The salvation of the rich depends on the poor, and on the acceptance, by them, of the alms the rich offer them. It is then, not so much the rich who do a favor to the poor by offering them alms, but rather the poor who become benefactors of the rich by accepting such alms.” This is confirmed when our Lord is quoted by St. Paul as saying , “It is better to give than to receive.” To be sure, when we die, we take with us what we gave, not what we received.
As stated, before the birth of Christ the unbaptized world was morally and spiritually impoverished. The human race had lowered itself to such degradation because it sought joy and happiness in the wrong places. Very much like ancient world, the modern world pines after fame, sex and material pleasures. For this reason, the Son of God was born into humble circumstances so that we would not put our hopes in what this world has to offer. Whatever satisfaction the flesh and the world provides, it is not only short-lived but it will eventually disappoint and leave a void that is impossible to fill.
Jesus Christ teaches us that in order to find ourselves it is necessary to first lose ourselves in him. Self-forgetfulness in pursuit of God and in serving others is one such way of losing ourselves. Similarly, in order to save the world, Christians have to die to the world. They have to die to its group-think ways, its conventional wisdom, its priorities and its values. And right from the start, at the moment of his birth, our Lord defies conventional wisdom in that he, as King, was not born in a palace but rather in some abandoned grotto. Just as with his death, what seems of little account to observers is, in fact, God’s instrument of bringing about new life and great achievements.
In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola has us pray along these lines:
“You could have come into this world through the richness of the flesh, in the midst of wealth. It has pleased you to make yourself a part of the great human family through the poverty of the virginity, not in the bosom of need and misery, but in a stable of a poverty momentarily needy as a consequence of inhospitality of the hearts you came to save. Your poverty and your celibacy are not the condemnation, but the salvation of marriage and ownership, restored by purity of heart and poverty of spirit. Today, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, in the wealth of divine glorification, wish to introduce in their holy family countless poor and chaste men and women...
I will make myself a poor little unworthy slave, and as though present, look upon them, contemplate them, and serve them in their needs with all possible homage and reverence.
Infant Jesus, my Lord and my God, I thank you for having become poor to expiate my avarice. Today, too, you are cold in so many hearts and in so many bodies. I adore your right to be warmed by the fire our loving poverty. In offering it to you for the evangelization and for the salvation of your poor, I renew my resolve to associate myself with your poverty and enrich myself with it.”
This is what the Crib of Christ has meant to a world in darkness and gloom. Its light emanated from an unlikely corner of the world. And from that quiet and humble corner came forth God’s Answer to a world that needed saving...not from material poverty, but from the greatest poverty of all- spiritual poverty!