Summary: The church ministered to the poor. If we lose that character, we are no longer the true church.
Fifth Day of the Christmas Octave 2016
Joy of the Gospel
St. John the Evangelist is the apostle and evangelist of love, but he can write in very black-and-white manners. In his first epistle his language is stark: if you obey the law to love your brother you are walking as Jesus did. If you say you are enlightened and hate your brother you are a liar, and you will stumble and fall just as the unguided blind fall in the darkness. Truth vs lies; light vs darkness; good vs evil. It’s an apt lesson for us today.
How do we know that a church is the true church established by Jesus? There are four certain marks: unity, holiness, apostolic origin and catholicity. But there is an earlier mark that ties them all together. It is consistently aiding the poor and oppressed. The faith spread through the middle east and Europe and Africa, and continues to do so today, largely because it was not crafted to appeal to the elite, the wealthy, the powerful. Jesus and Mary and Joseph were poor, and the church ministered to the poor. If we lose that character, we are no longer the true church. Even Luther recognized that one of the chief, lamentable results of his so-called reformation was that the religious orders that ministered to the poor disappeared, and the poor were much worse off as an example.
The Holy Father continues his exhortation, and it’s like a homily on today’s Gospel: ‘God’s heart has a special place for the poor, so much so that he himself “became poor” (2 Cor 8:9). The entire history of our redemption is marked by the presence of the poor. Salvation came to us from the “yes” uttered by a lowly maiden from a small town on the fringes of a great empire. The Saviour was born in a manger, in the midst of animals, like children of poor families; he was presented at the Temple along with two turtle doves, the offering made by those who could not afford a lamb (cf. Lk 2:24; Lev 5:7); he was raised in a home of ordinary workers and worked with his own hands to earn his bread. When he began to preach the Kingdom, crowds of the dispossessed followed him, illustrating his words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Lk 4:18). He assured those burdened by sorrow and crushed by poverty that God has a special place for them in his heart: “Blessed are you poor, yours is the kingdom of God” (Lk 6:20); he made himself one of them: “I was hungry and you gave me food to eat”, and he taught them that mercy towards all of these is the key to heaven (cf. Mt 25:5ff.).
‘For the Church, the option for the poor is primarily a theological category rather than a cultural, sociological, political or philosophical one. God shows the poor “his first mercy”. This divine preference has consequences for the faith life of all Christians, since we are called to have “this mind… which was in Jesus Christ” (Phil 2:5). Inspired by this, the Church has made an option for the poor which is understood as a “special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity, to which the whole tradition of the Church bears witness”. This option – as Benedict XVI has taught – “is implicit in our Christian faith in a God who became poor for us, so as to enrich us with his poverty”. This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them. The new evangelization is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the centre of the Church’s pilgrim way. We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them.’