Am I Poor Enough to Celebrate Christmas? The Third Sunday of Advent 2017
It was Blessed Oscar Romero who said on Christmas Eve 1978:
“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 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.”
Romero (and Jesus) ask us whether we are poor enough to truly celebrate Christmas.
In the late 1980s, I was presiding at the Wednesday evening Eucharist at Ignatius Farm Community in Guelph, Ontario. It doesn’t exist anymore, but the Farm Community was very much in the spirit of L’Arche, the international network of communities for the handicapped.
The Farm Community had its roots in a desire to provide a safe environment for men who had come out of prison. It evolved over the years and comprised of two houses for a diversity of women and men who needed a welcoming community. There was a wide network of friends and volunteers who worked with the residents.
The community cared for the farm operations on our Jesuit property in Guelph. But the most important “work” that took place was caring for one another. The Farm Community was clearly a healing community, as described by Jean Vanier. I never actually lived in the community, but I occasionally visited for a meal, gave spiritual direction to a few people and said Mass when there was a need.
When it came time for Communion during the celebration, the presider passed the Body and Blood of Christ around the circle of the people who were there. On the evening in question, I prayerfully glanced around the circle as Communion was passed from hand to hand. I pondered why various people were part of this healing community.
Paul was there because he was schizophrenic and had lived on the streets and was grateful for a caring community. Although Susan didn’t live in the community, she visited quite often. She had a hard life with much suffering. The community provided her with a place to feel accepted and welcomed for the person she was. There were no expectations placed on her.
Megan was a volunteer who needed a break from her studies and thought that a year or so of volunteering would help her to focus her life desires and priorities. And so on! I went around the circle and was about to skip over myself.
I thought, hey! Why am I here? Besides the fact that they needed a priest and I was free, what did I get out of involvement with the Farm Community? I started to reflect on my vulnerability and weaknesses and my need to be in a community where I could just be myself.
In those days, I was the Rector of the local Jesuit Community and the Director of the spirituality centre. I had a lot on my plate and needed to keep a lot of people more-or-less happy living and/or working together. So, it was a gift to be in a place where I could get out of the “role” of the Rector and not have to meet peoples’ expectations.
When I look back on my involvement with Ignatius Farm Community, I recall how important it was to be there and to recognize my own vulnerability. A few years later I suffered a brain tumour (the first of two) and realized that part of my ability to cope in a spiritually healthy way was due to the self-knowledge that came from experiences such as the Farm Community.
It can be summed up in stark words that come from the Book of Revelation: “You say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, blind, and naked.” Romero’s question about our poverty hits close to the bone!
What’s the connection with Advent? The Gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent has John the Baptist say, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” Advent is a time to recognize our basic human unworthiness.
We may be powerful and wealthy, but, ultimately, we are unworthy. I may be presiding or leading, but I can’t separate myself from the circle of the vulnerable. It’s too easy to say that everyone else needs this healing community, but I’m above it. Not so!
What is my poverty, my need? Where am I still seeking wholeness in my life? Those are good questions to ponder as we approach Christmas. Pope Francis has reminded us that the Eucharist is a healing sacrament. As I sit in the community and receive Christ, where do I need healing? What part of my poverty will I bring to the newborn Christ this Christmas?
Note: You can learn more about the Ignatius Farm Community by reading Fr. Bill Clarke’s The Face of Friendship (Novalis 2004)