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’s book, 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 always shown a special affection for the poor. Furthermore, 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.
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 very reason, the Son of God was born into humble circumstances so that we would not put our hopes in the things of this earth. 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. This is the greatest of paradoxes and it is one that the world simply doesn’t understand. Indeed, self-forgetfulness in pursuit of God and in the service of others is the way in which we are called to lose 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 meditation on the following passage:
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 what the prophet Isaiah referred to as “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. Through our Lord’s poverty, we became rich. And that holy poverty and simplicity is held out to us in a special way during the seasons of Advent and Christmas so that we can renew it in ourselves.