In our article The First Joyful Mystery: The Annunciation – in consideration of St. Louis de Montfort’s statement that the Incarnation of Our Lord is the “most hidden, most exalted, and the least known” of all the mysteries of Our Lord’s life – we focused on the humility of Our Lord in His Incarnation. In the mystery which we will here be examining, we will focus on the poverty of His birth into this world. There is not only a natural, but also profoundly supernatural, connection between these two mysteries, and the virtues which they exemplify.
It is singularly appropriate that the first person to stage a live nativity scene was St. Francis of Assisi. Thomas of Celano, commissioned by Pope Gregory IX in 1228 (three years after Francis’ death) to write his first biography, offers the most complete account of this holy event, which occurred three years before the Saint’s death. The following excerpts are offered for our instruction and inspiration:
Francis’ highest intention, his chief desire, his uppermost purpose was to observe the holy Gospel in all things and through all things and, with perfect vigilance, and all the fervor of his heart, “to follow the teaching and the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ”….The humility of the incarnation and the charity of the passion occupied his memory particularly, to the extent that he wanted to think of hardly anything else. What he did on the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ [in a cave] near the little town called Greccio in the third year before his glorious death should especially be noted and recalled with reverent memory,
In that place there was a certain man by the name of John, of good reputation and an even better life, whom blessed Francis loved with a special love…and he [Francis] said to him: “If you want us to celebrate the present feast of our Lord at Greccio, go with haste and diligently prepare what I tell you. For I wish to do something that will recall to memory the little Child who was born in Bethlehem and set before our bodily eyes in some way the inconveniences of his infant needs, how he lay in a manger, how, with an ox and an ass standing by, he lay upon the hay where he had been placed.”
And after describing how all was done according to St. Francis’ instructions, Thomas of Celano continues:
At length the saint of God came, and finding all things prepared, he saw it and was glad. The manger was prepared, the hay had been brought the ox and ass were led in. There simplicity was honored, poverty was exhalted, humility was commended, and Greccio was made, as it were, a new Bethlehem. The night was lighted up like the day, and it delighted men and beasts. The people came and were filled with new joy over the new mystery. The woods rang with the voices of the crowd and the rocks made answer to their jubilation. The brothers sang, paying their debt of praise to the Lord, and the whole night resounded with their rejoicing. The saint of God stood before the manger, uttering sighs, overcome with love, and filled with a wonderful happiness. The solemnities of the Mass were celebrated over the manger and the priest experienced a new consolation….
The gifts of the Almighty were multiplied there, and a wonderful vision was seen by a certain virtuous man. For he saw a little child lying in the manger lifeless, and he saw the holy man of God go up to it and rouse the child as from a deep sleep [St. Bonaventure say that Francis took the child into his arms and woke him up]. This vision was not unfitting, for the Child Jesus had been forgotten in the hearts of many; but, by the working of his grace, he was brought to life again through his servant St. Francis and stamped upon their fervent memory.
Pope Pius XI, in his Encyclical Rite Expiatis (On the Seventh Centenerary of the Death of St. Francis), writes: “It would appear that in no one has the image of Christ our Lord and the ideal of Gospel life been more faithfully and strikingly expressed than in Francis. For this reason, while he called himself ‘the Herald of the great King’, he has justly been styled ‘the second Christ’ because he appeared like Christ reborn to his contemporaries no less than to later ages….” Popes Leo XIII, Pius X, Benedict XV, and Pius XI – all of whom were member of the Third Order of St. Francis – were united in claiming that St. Francis was an extraordinary gift of God providentially sent to turn Christians away from the luxuries and pleasures of the world and back to living the simplicity and poverty of the Gospel; and further, that this was to be his mission not only to his own age, but to all ages.
That St. Francis was the first to re-enact a live Nativity Scene was certainly, therefore, no mere accident of history. It is only fitting that the Saint who made Lady Poverty his Mistress and the fundamental charism of his Order, should be chosen by God to re-enact and recall to the minds and hearts of all Christians the poverty of circumstances of Our Lord’s Birth, and thus the corresponding radical necessity for all of the faithful to possess a devotion to poverty towards all the things of this world if they are to truly follow Christ.
As noted in the first paragraph of this article, the poverty embraced by Jesus, Mary, and Joseph during Our Lord’s Birth naturally and necessarily proceeds from the humility of the Incarnation. The Incarnation reveals to us the fundamental act of submission and humility (Mary’s fiat) necessary in order that we might receive God into our souls. And through the poverty of His Birth He reveals the fundamental posture which must be ours towards all the things of this world if we are not to be duplicitous in this submission – if it is not merely to be a submission of faith (which is necessary, but not sufficient, unto salvation), but also the submission of our hearts to the simplicity of intention which loves God above all created things. Such simplicity of intention is impossible without a radical devotion to implementing the virtue of poverty into all our dealings with the things of this world.
It is the contradiction between the faith we possess as Catholics and the lives that we actually live in this world, which is the fundamental duplicity and hypocrisy which has plagued Christianity throughout its history. The Apostle St. James writes:
You ask, and receive not; because you ask amiss: that you may consume it on your concupiscences. Adulterers, know you not that the friendship of this world is the enemy of God? Whosoever therefore will be a friend of this world, becometh an enemy of God….Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners: and purify your hearts, ye double minded. (James 4: 3-4, 8).
The most universal effect of original sin upon our lives is that every moment of our conscious existence it tends to turn our hearts and minds downwards towards “consuming” the gifts of God in our own concupiscences. If the possession of Catholic faith does not, therefore, lead to a devotion to poverty in respect to all the unnecessary goods and luxuries of this world, it is a faith which is always faced with the impending judgment: “Adulterers, know you not that the friendship of this world is the enemy of God?” And if in the face of all the crises we perceive to exist in the Church and the world our prayers seem to go unanswered, it would seem appropriate and reasonable to conclude that the ultimate source of this chastisement from God lies in the duplicity of our own Catholic lives.
It is a vicious circle we are in. The more our minds and hearts are immersed in the luxuries and pleasures of this world, the more clouded and superficial is our understanding of the Ways of God, and the more eviscerated becomes that passion, absolutely necessary to the Christian life, which seeks Him in all the thoughts and actions of our daily lives. And the more superficial our commitment to God, the more our minds and hearts descend into that world of which Satan is the Prince. This is precisely the analysis which Pope Benedict XV offered in his encyclical Sacra Propediem (On the Seventh Centenary of the Third Order):
Now, there are two evils which predominate in the great moral subversion of today: a boundless craze for possession and an insatiable thirst for pleasure. It is these vices especially that attach to our age the shame and blame that, while making steady progress in all that pertains to the convenience and comfort of life, in a more important matter – the duty of good and upright living – it seems to be miserably backsliding to the infamies of pagan antiquity. Naturally; for the more clouded becomes man’s vision of the eternal blessings laid up in heaven, the more do the transitory goods of earth entice and enslave him. Once the mind has turned earthward, however, it is liable to become gradually weak and dull, and loathing things spiritual, ultimately to lose the taste for anything but the delights of passion.
If the “transitory goods’ of the age of St. Francis were sufficient to draw people away from Christ, when Christian belief and civilization were at their peak, one can well imagine Pope Benedict XV’s dismay over the vastly increased evils present in his own day when Christian civilization was in a severe period of decay, and the “marvels” of science and technology were mushrooming modern “comforts” for consumption by an increasingly corrupted faithful. We also need consider, however, that the age of Pope Benedict XV was positively primitive in comparison with what we now have with us. We now swim in an ocean of transitory goods.
One of the great delusions of modern Christians is that, in giving Adam and Eve “dominion” (Gen 1: 26) over all things of this earth, God also gave man total license for all that we now experience as the fruits of modern science and technology. In the first place, the word “dominion” is not to be equated with that rapaciousness and pride of life which seeks to exploit all of creation in order to satisfy that which, after the Fall, became man’s threefold concupiscence: the concupiscence of the flesh, and the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life, which is not of the Father, but of the world” (1 John 2: 16). The dominion to be exercised by man before original sin was a thing of order, harmony, and peace between man and all of creation. This was destroyed by man’s sin, such that all of creation – not only all animals, but the very earth itself – entered into a state of enmity with mankind: “Cursed is the earth in thy work; with labour and toil shalt thou eat thereof all the days of thy life. Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee….”
But secondly, the real dominion to be exercised after the Fall, which was absolutely necessary for both his own future dignity as a human being and possible friendship with God, was dominion over his own lower nature and the threefold concupiscence mentioned above. This in turn demanded a poverty of both spirit and of flesh which could only be lived by creatively and violently exercising dominion over what now became the natural inclinations of his fallen nature. This obviously necessitated an extraordinary modesty in the exercise of any and all powers which he might exercise over the rest of creation. We now live in a culture and civilization which in the most profound sense has failed utterly in this regard.
We think that as Christians we can handle all this possession and accumulation of “transitory goods” – we who, despite sanctifying grace, are subject all the time to the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil. In so thinking, we are not of those who follow Jesus Christ, His Holy Mother, or St. Joseph – all of whom espoused poverty, even when there was no necessity present to live such poverty for their own personal preservation in sanctity. It would seem especially beneficial in this regard to consider St. Joseph. After all, it is the husband and father of a family who is most often subjected to the thoughts and feelings (and the coercive opinions of this world) which would demand of him that he make as comfortable and pleasurable as possible the lives of the wife and children who have been entrusted to his care by God. And it is also he who is likely to experience an acute sense of failure and guilt if he fails to do so. The response of St. Joseph to such worldly arguments and temptations is therefore worthy of the deepest consideration. The following is from an article written on this subject by Dom Bernard Maréchaux ((1849-1927) :
The great St. Joseph knew poverty, even destitution. He was forced to live from day to day on his labor; he had to seek work under difficult and humiliating conditions, waiting oftentimes with great worry, and despite his assiduous labor and the privations he imposed on himself, he was not always able to shield Mary and Jesus from the discomfort of poverty.
He was poor, but he loved poverty; he never wished to replace it with the treasures and the oriental luxury of his forefather, King Solomon. If Moses preferred the harsh and persecuted life of his Hebrew brothers – which prophetically depicted the shame of Christ to come – to all the opulence and delights of the corrupted Egyptian court, St. Joseph himself, and even more so than Moses, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, respected and embraced poverty as a priceless treasure.
The goods of the world are in opposition to the goods of Heaven; holy souls do not wish to have riches unless it be to distribute them among the poor. They cannot resign themselves to supine enjoyment of the comforts of life when there are so many humans who do not even have the basic necessities.
The Son of God, coming into this world, could have made use of the goods of this world without fear that His thrice-holy soul might be contaminated by their use, but He wished to banish them from His human life and have no experience of them whatsoever. He was born poor, poor He lived, and poor He died. Between the manger of His birth and the gibbet of His last breath, poverty occupied every instant of His human existence. He thereby gave us the example we needed to hold worldly goods in contempt; and even more, it was His adorable charity which impelled Him to take His place among the poor and disinherited. Having taken upon Himself the cloak of poverty, He rendered it lovable and full of victorious attractions. He impressed by anticipation into the souls of Mary, His Mother, and Joseph, His adopted father, the love of poverty, which, since His coming, has led so many souls to Him.
St. Joseph delighted in taking a poor wife, Mary; and Mary was delighted to take a poor husband, Joseph. O holy union of two souls, both poor and virgins, in whom were manifested incomparable riches, from which proceeded an affection purer than light itself. If there were ever two spouses who loved each other in a chaste manner and in God, without any regard for the advantages of the world, they were Mary and Joseph.
This poverty, which was one of the distinctive signs of his union with Mary, was precious to St. Joseph. He felt its thorns during the flight into Egypt, and felt its bruises under the humble roof in Nazareth. But he loved these thorns and bruises; the thorns blossomed and the bruises turned to joys. (Traditions Monastiques Press, 2009).
*Please pray every Rosary to include the intention: For the Purification of the Church, and consider having a Mass said for this expressed intention. We also are asking people to approach their Pastor and ask him to implement the second annual Rosary to the Interior: For the Purification of the Church event in their Parish Churches next Feb 2 on the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Presentation of Our Lord, which next year occurs on a First Saturday.