Sunday, December 29, 2013

Hope Starry, Frantic, Free

Late thou comest, little one, Snow is on the stones.
Earth is bitter, little one, Grey with mists and moans.
Thou art cold as we art cold, Huddled with the lost.
Star of winter, star of want, Crowned with the frost.

Bare thou comest, blessed one, Clean of rod or crown.
Stark and poor, beloved one, As God sends us down.
Thou art bare as we art bare. Bare as death and birth.
Naked as the stars and snows, We come upon the earth.

New thou comest, nascent one, Little hands astray
Where life formless lies, and void, As creation’s day
And though our hopes for man be wild, Starry, frantic, free
All things now are possible, Unto God and Thee.
GK Chesterton, Hymn of the Poor

Reflection – I have always loved this poem of GKC’s. The idea of the poor of the world at the stable, singing to the Christ Child, is a deep one. There is a bit more to the poem, and in fact I have seen variant texts of it with different stanzas here and there. But this is enough to give the sense of it.

There is something very beautiful about the whole spiritual reality of poverty as it is met by Christ here. There is nothing particularly praise-worthy about poverty in itself, we must realize. The simple fact of being hungry, cold, naked is not virtuous, nor (alas!) does it automatically render the poor one virtuous. If only it were that simple, eh?

Of course, neither is being rich virtuous nor does the possession of wealth render the possessor virtuous. I make these, which may seem rather obvious points, because there is an awful lot of nonsense floating around to the contrary on both sides.

Poverty is not a virtue, but poverty is something else that pertains deeply to the spiritual life, which is another way of saying poverty is deeply connected to the reality of true and lasting human happiness and flourishing. Namely, poverty is truth.

Poverty, real physical poverty and the want it delivers to us, plants us (whether we like it or not, whether everything in us seethes and rebels at it or not) in the deep truth of our humanity, which is our state of radical dependence. Every poor man, no matter what else is going on in his life, knows in his very flesh that he is not self-sufficient, that the cold can kill, that hunger is real, that we are not placed on this earth containing within ourselves everything that a human being needs for life.

This is where the poor have an advantage over the rich. The rich can fool themselves, can perhaps acknowledge in some vague abstract way the dependent nature of human life, but may never really experience it in any real sharp way.

So, back to Chesterton. The whole sense of this poem is that the poor of the world are marveling that God, coming as man, chooses to come as one of them, one of the cold, naked, needy ones. And in that coming of God as a Poor Man, poverty is revealed as something that is shared, not only among the poor, but with the stars and the snows, the elemental human realities of birth and death (we all are born poor, and die poor), and indeed creation itself springing eternally from the hand of God as total gift and gratuity, and as total contingent dependence.

And in this revelation of the poverty of God, something shifts on such a deep level that it is genuinely difficult to grasp the extent of the shift. The whole poor-rich dynamic dominates our human world to such a huge and tragic extent. Greed and envy, injustice and crime, exploitation and violence—all of this is the bitter fruit of so much of the have/have-not juxtaposition of humanity.

But God has come as a poor baby, naked, shivering, hungry. And everything shifts in this. Everything is a little different, because of that fact. And this is the whole mysterious shift in that final stanza, which may seem a bit random and rushed. ‘Though our hopes for man be wild, starry, frantic, free, all things now are possible, unto God and thee.’

It is not simply, although it is certainly part of it, that God has taken the side of the poor. That is undoubtedly true, and Scripture bears united witness to it. But rather, in becoming poor in his Incarnation, God shows that poverty is the doorway to the ‘all things’ that God in Christ is doing and will do for humanity.

To know our weakness, our vulnerability, our utter dependence, to not just know it notionally and vaguely while all the while we grab as big a piece of the pie as we can and wrap ourselves in layers of comfort and wealth, but to really know it, to taste it, to feel it, to shiver from it, to be all weak and wobbly the way we are when we are really hungry—this is the gateway to the kingdom of God.

And this kingdom is where are hopes run wild, where the starry, frantic, free action of grace can move in its perfect freedom, and where all things truly are possible. It is not just a frantic grubby grab for the big money and the big life, but something much better, much more joyous, much more lasting. And this is something the poor are at least better situated to know about than the rich, and that is why the Lord Himself calls them ‘blessed.’

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