The Poverty of Bethlehem, Nazareth, Calvary – Br. James Koester
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Isaiah 9: 2 – 7
Titus 2: 11 – 14
Luke 2: 1 – 20
When I came to the community now slightly over thirty years ago, we had just begun the process of writing our new Rule of Life. The old Rule had been respectfully laid aside, and we were experimenting by reading portions of the Rules of Life of other communities. We wanted to hear other voices, as we practiced using our own voice, as we began to articulate our own vision for our community.
But just as we listened to other voices, and began to listen to our own voice, we would often hear the voice of our original Rule of Life in the background. How could we not hear it? We had, after all, been listening to it on a nearly daily basis for almost 100 years by that time. Over the decades it had seeped into our corporate, and individual souls and would emerge in conversations, and reflections about the new Rule of Life that we were working on. Even though we were no longer reading our old Rule when I came to the community, certain phrases became familiar to me, so much so that thirty years later, they still crop up every once in a while in my prayer, and conversation.
One such phrase comes from the original chapter on Poverty where we read if the Society in any place is poor. Look to God to do great things by it. God has chosen the poor, the weak things of the world to confound the mighty. Think of the blessed poverty of Bethlehem, Nazareth, Calvary. It is this image of the poverty of Bethlehem, Nazareth, Calvary which arrests my attention this Christmas.
My attention is arrested in part, because I can imagine what those places look like. I have been there. I have seen the modern day poverty of Bethlehem, and the unemployed young men sitting in Manger Square for hours every day. I have seen the bustling, crowded streets of Nazareth. I have seen the lines of pilgrims waiting to ascend the steep, narrow steps in the Church of the Resurrection, leading to the place of Calvary, and the spot where Christ’s cross once stood. I have seen these places, but it is not my familiarity with them which arrests my attention. What arrests my attention is their ordinariness: unemployed young men, who would not be out of place in Harvard Square; crowds of people, tourists, pilgrims, and locals alike, going about their daily business, who would not be out of place in innumerable cities and towns across North America; lines of people, waiting patiently, or not so patiently, just as you and I often do at Logan, or South Station, or Park Street.
What arrests my attention, is not the familiarity of these places, but rather their ordinariness, and knowing that it is in these ordinary places of Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Calvary, that God chose to be revealed to us in the person of Jesus. And that, is the gift of Christmas.
Two thousand years ago, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Calvary were pretty ordinary. In fact they were so ordinary, they were ignored, forgotten, and largely hidden from the rest of the world. Yet is was in these ignored, forgotten, hidden places, marked not by wealth and power, but by poverty and isolation, that God chose to come among us, not in deeds of wonder and power, but in the ordinary, hushed cries, of a tiny baby, and the deep groans, of a broken, dying, defeated man.
In a world populated by countless gods, all vying to demonstrate their might and their power, the God who comes to us in the poverty of Bethlehem, Nazareth, Calvary comes to us as a helpless infant, and a broken, dying, defeated man. He comes dependent on others for the gift of life, and the dignity of an honourable, and respectful burial, and in that way turns our expectations upside down, [lifting] up the lowly … and [filling] the hungry with good things.
This reversal of expectations lies, not only at the heart of the Christmas mystery, but at the heart of our faith, which teaches us to seek out divine grace present in places and experiences that seem insignificant, dark or empty.
Ever since the Garden of Eden, humanity has been captivated by everything that is a delight to the eyes, and so we reach for what is shiny, bright, and new. We believe what the serpent, the Great Deceiver, tells us, that what is a delight to the eyes will make us wise, and rich, and powerful, so that we will not die, and will instead be like God. The catch is, that this rich and powerful god whom we imagine we can become, is not God at all. For the real God, whose first act of creation was one of selfless love, when room was made in God’s heart for the existence of space and time and a world … filled with glory, comes now to us in the person of Jesus, in the poverty of Nazareth, Bethlehem and Calvary.
For Jesus comes, not in pomp, and power, and privilege, but in the hushed cry of a tiny, helpless infant, and the deep groans of a despised, and dying man. It is there, in the helplessness and dependence of our own lives, that Christ waits to be found.
The world is full of all things shiny, bright, and new, which delight our eyes, and tempt us to stretch out our hands in our search to become god, but the real miracle of Christmas is not in the bright lights and the tinsel. The real miracle of Christmas is in the hushed cries, and deep groans of our helplessness and dependency. That is where we know our need of God, and that is where God is waiting to be found by us, tonight.
It is so easy to be distracted by the bright, the shiny, and the new. It is so tempting to turn away from the cries, and groans, of our helplessness and dependency. Yet the path which the shepherds travelled ahead of us, leads to a stable, and a tiny baby, lying in a manger, dependent on Mary and Joseph, for warmth, food, and love. It is there, kneeling before the tiny helpless infant, that the shepherds found the promised one of God:
Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
It is so tempting to believe that God is only interested in power, yet the miracle of Christmas is that God is waiting to be found in weakness, poverty, and insignificance, in Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Calvary.
As often as we are tempted to turn our backs on those places where we see helplessness and dependency, listen for the song of the angels, as they sing, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’ And kneel before the saviour, for that is where he will be found.
As often as we are tempted to turn our backs on those places of poverty, not only in the world, but in our own lives, listen for the song of the angels, as they sing, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’ And kneel before the saviour, for that is where he will be found.
As often as we are tempted to turn our backs on the ordinary, ignored, forgotten, and hidden parts of our lives, listen for the songs of the angels, as they sing, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’ And kneel before the saviour, for that is where he will be found.
The miracle of Christmas is that God is waiting to be found in places of helplessness, and dependency, in the midst of poverty, and among the ordinary, ignored, forgotten, and hidden of this world.
The miracle of Christmas is that Jesus was born, not to power and wealth, but to helplessness and dependency, to the ordinary, ignored, forgotten and hidden places, not only of the world, but of our lives as well.
Like our first parents, Adam and Eve, we search for god in the bright, the shiny, and the new, and all that looks good to the eyes. Yet Jesus is waiting to be found by us in the poverty of Bethlehem, Nazareth, Calvary. It is there we will find Him, tiny and helpless, surrounded by the shepherds, and lulled to sleep by the song of the angels.
If you are looking to find where Jesus has been born tonight, do not stretch your hand out to the shiny, the bright, and the new. Look to those ordinary, ignored, forgotten and hidden parts of your life, and of our world, and there you will find Him. And then with the shepherds, kneel before him and know him to be, Emmanuel, God with us.
 Benson SSJE, Richard Meux, The Religious Vocation, Of Poverty, chapter 10, page 133
 Luke 1: 52 – 53
 SSJE, Rule of Life, Engaging with Poverty, chapter 8, page 16
 Genesis 3: 6
 Genesis 3: 4
 Genesis 3: 4
 SSJE, Rule of Life, The Spirit of Poverty, chapter 6, page 12
 Luke 2: 9 – 14
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The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.
In a year in which nothing is the same, you remind us of what is indeed the same: the love that came to us in the humblest form, a form that forces us to examine our perception’s attractions to the bright and the shiny, and a form that forces us to examine the invisible gift that lies in the deepest parts of our being. Thank you, Brother James, for directing our attention to the places where the good lies unseen but not unseeable.
May you and all the Brothers greet the New Year with health and that modicum of happiness that comes from never turning our gaze away from the most important gifts—in Creation and in our soul of souls.
Maryanne Wolf, December 28, 2020, Los Angeles, CA
“Nothing in my hand I bring. Only to thy cross I cling.” Thank you, Br. James.
Thank you Br. James. That is the closest I have come to feeling “Christmas” in this crazy year. God Bless. Elizabeth Hardy+
Thank you! Just what I needed to hear in the midst of this strange and unusual Christmas-tide.
Dear James, This is just lovely and will be my Christmas solace. Thank you Margo
Thank you Br. James. I have such a problem staying focused on what is most important. I will keep trying!
Merry Christmas to you and all the Brothers.
Oh…thank you for pointing me in the right direction, to the right places, to the places that truly matter, to the places where I will truly find Jesus, where I will find the beauty of my soul, my very being, my Center. Glory to God!