Poor As I Am

by Jessica Hickey, (c.) 2010
Wednesday, 22 December 2010

"Beloved, our Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal creator of all things, today became our savior by being born of a mother. Of his own free will he was born for us today, in time, so that he could lead us to his Father’s eternity. God became man so that man might become God. . . . Man fell, but God descended; man fell miserably, but God descended mercifully; man fell through pride, but God descended with his grace." (Augustine, Sermon 13)

"One can resist force, skill, or self interest. One can even resist Truth, but one cannot resist Beauty, holding innocence in her arms." (Paul Claudel)

In this final week of Advent, as we ready ourselves for the gift who is Christ Himself, it is well to dwell on that mystery which so altered mankind, which dealt our race a shock from which we are still reeling: that God deigned to become one of us. "My brethren, what miracles, what prodigies!" exclaims St Augustine, and St. Athanasius adds his voice: "Our Savior truly became man and from this has followed the salvation of man as a whole!"

We often read the saints speaking of God's "condescension." This word, which really has only negative connotations in common usage, seems inadequate to express what has occurred.

We usually use it to refer to one who looks down on others, seeing them to be less than himself, and thus disdaining them. And we may have felt this sense ourselves, thinking at some time or other of those whom we do not like or respect, those with whom we do not wish to be associated lest our own standing be lowered. God shows us a different way. "Man fell, but God descended." To become a lowly creature of earth was in one sense a great lowering, a humiliation of sorts, even more so since the race with whom His Name will be forever coupled was so thoroughly mired in crude sins and miseries of its own making. But Jesus, "although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped at, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, and being made in the likeness of men" (Philippians 2: 6-7). He did not come, standing upon His dignity, looking down upon men; He came as a child, who instead looked up into the faces of His mother and His foster father, looked up through the dark and intent eyes of a newborn, saw the dirty faces of the shepherd boys and the still faces of the wise kings—and loved them all. Paul Claudel reflects:

"It is no longer the God of Sinai who appears to us amid peals of thunder, torrents of black smoke, and terrifying blasts that rehearse the fanfare for the Last Judgment. It is a little child who stands among us, and who has come bearing a childish lesson: God is love, and there is no other commandment, but to love God and your neighbor."

Thus, with trust and love, did God enter into the poverty of man. I chose deliberately to affix the image of Madonnina , more commonly called Madonna of the Streets, to our meditation today. It is not numbered among the great works of art, being a soft, Victorian image, maybe a tad sentimental, that has found its home on religious calendars and holy cards in the pockets of the Faithful. Nonetheless it has its appeal. The image attempts to show us a very young and simple little Madonna, a girl alone against a stark and plain backdrop. There are no low-bending cherubim, no thrones of gold or lilies. Some say that Feruzzi did not necessarily intend to portray Mary at all, but merely a little mother. A few days ago, I saw a girl who reminded me of the Madonnina, a girl standing in the frigid air of early morning at a bust stop, playing with the bundled-up baby in her arms. Like the mother in the picture, she is a girl who has little, but at the same time, has everything.

Later in the week, I happened upon the story of Sister Mary Bovo, a nun from the teaching order of Saint Joseph of Carondelet in California. Sister was from family of ten. Her parents were immigrants who had come to America from Italy in 1906. She had, from the age of eight, been raised by the nuns of this Order, together with her three younger siblings, for, following her father Antonio's untimely death in 1929, her mother Angelina had suffered a mental breakdown and become unable to care for her children. Angelina spent the rest of her days in a mental hospital, while her children were placed in Catholic orphanages. Later in life, Sister Mary wanted to know more about her mother as she had been, and began to correspond with relations in Italy. She was able to visit an aged aunt in Venice, who was eager to show her an image of Angelina as a young girl. The aunt produced a print of the familiar Madonnina. Sister's subsequent research verified that her mother, then about eleven years old, had sat as the model for Feruzzi's painting. The baby in her arms was Angelina's little brother, Giovanni, who was about a year old.

This story seems to me to be oddly right for our current purposes, for the Holy Virgin herself was carved of the same frail clay as little, broken Angelina Bovo, whose face we have come to associate with the Mother of God. They shared the same humanity. This was the very nature that Christ assumed, that He might be one of us, one with us. It was an act of Divine solidarity, the one way that Love might put things right. The prophet Jeremiah recorded his vision: "I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel. And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in his hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do" (Jer. 18: 3-4). In his hand, the same broken clay became something whole and good again. He did not consider our substance unworthy of saving, unworthy of being imprinted with His image. Rather, He found a way to take the broken pieces and to make of them something infinitely greater.

The other day, I was compiling a playlist of Christmas carols. I had trouble finding a good recording of "The First Noel." I eventually settled for one in which the accompaniment is understated and voices are very much unpolished. (I suspect this is something of an affectation, after the current fashion). The truth was, I had started to like feeble rendition because it reminded me of that same mystery of human poverty, into which God so compassionately enters. The carol itself, of course, is about God's own preference for the most lowly. It was to "certain poor shepherds" that the angelic choir delivered their first Noel. Now, I am no celebrator of human imperfections. I have always been a bit impatient at Chesterton's declaration that "Anything worth doing, is worth doing badly," feeling that we shouldn't set the bar too low, for we are more like God in giving our best--as Hopkins writes of Christ in his poem, "The Soldier":

" . . . séeing somewhére some mán do all that man can do,
For love he leans forth, needs his neck must fall on, kiss,
And cry 'O Christ-done deed! So God-made-flesh does too."

However, every human must, in the end recognize that his hands are empty, he has no means to save himself, to save others or set the world to rights. He is not absolved of the desire nor the duty of trying—yet, but for Christ, all is impossible. I am reminded of the famous scene in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings , wherein the hero Frodo, having taken on the mission to destroy the Ring, survives predators, deprivations and evil of all kids, even escapes capture, but cannot carry out his task when he reaches the appointed place on Mount Doom. He is overmastered by himself, and would have failed but for an unexpected mercy.

Humanly, we cannot do what we ought. This makes God's gift to us, the gift of Himself, even greater. He has given us life again, life with meaning, and He leaves no desire unfulfilled. He descended with trust in us, trust that we are good as He sees us to be, good enough to make a return of this love. And so we are stirred to try to our utmost, and in this sense, our limitations no longer matter. I remember one Advent in my childhood when my mother wanted to record her children singing Christmas carols. My little brother Michael, probably three or four at the time, was given "The Little Drummer Boy," because it was easy. When he reached the line, "I have no gift to bring," he suddenly burst into tears. We all had to console him. That was the end of the recording. Needless to say, my grown-up brother no longer relishes the telling of the tale, but I think that what he felt at that moment was right and noble and true. It was that overwhelming sense of love and gratitude, the desire to offer something worthy in return, but also, the awareness of our own littleness—that soul of the little child, without which, Jesus said, we do not enter the kingdom of God.

This week, let us offer all we have, even our smallness and frailty, to that face which looks up at us from the Crib.

In the Bleak Midwinter
Christina Rossetti

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But his mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshiped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him: give my heart.

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