Two separate conversations, with two entirely different groups of people, resulted in an identical statement of conclusion that hit me immediately.[[In-content Ad]]
First, as we had the family around the house at Thanksgiving, my mother ended up talking about her childhood during the Great Depression on a farm in central Pennsylvania. Like so many other families of the time they made do with what they had but always seemed to have enough. After telling some of those stories, many of which I have heard dozens of times to be sure, she said, “We didn’t know we were poor.”
A few weeks later I was in a conversation with a much younger man talking about his childhood in northern Michigan. He regaled with stories of life on his farm and the things that his family had to do in order to get through the winters there and at some point he made the identical statement, “We didn’t know we were poor.”
The Gospel for this fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time presents Jesus’ ascent to Mount Tabor to deliver the Sermon on the Mount, where he opens with the delivery of the Beatitudes. Jesus begins, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
While poverty and poverty of spirit are neither identical nor equivalent, both concepts are presented in the Beatitudes – Matthew, as noted, uses poor in spirit where Luke instead records blessed are the poor. While there does appear to be a distinction between the two, it seems to be a distinction without a difference.
On New Year’s Eve, 23 Christians were killed by a car bomb outside of their church after Mass in Alexandria, Egypt.
In May, 500 police in Con Dau, Vietnam, beat and then arrested parishioners who were burying a woman in the church cemetery. The town plans to confiscate the cemetery in order to build a tourist resort. Those arrested and charged were sentenced to 12 months in prison.
Christmas Day in Jos, in the Nigerian state of Plateau, saw over 100 people injured in a series of explosions near churches and other religious sites.
At the same time, every day and in every corner of the world, ordinary people take time during the day to attend Mass, say private and devotional prayers, visit the sick and the elderly, take care of those who are in need. We see parents and grandparents who see to the religious formation of their children, people who attend programs in their parishes and schools, and people who take a day or a weekend for a time of reflection or retreat.
It is the simple, ordinary and daily experience of realization of our total reliance upon the grace and mercy of God that stands as the first measure of a poverty of spirit.
We are called to stand in awe of the presence and majesty of God, to realize that what we do and what we are does not depend upon us and our efforts, but rather as we cooperate with the will of God for us.
We also see more and more opposition to this worldview. The everyday advancements in science, technology, medicine, philosophy, psychology and anthropology seem to continually reduce reliance upon God as irrelevant or quaint. Poverty of spirit is replaced with a richness of hubris.
Like those who are economically or physically poor and do not recognize it, most people are unlikely to recognize their own poverty of spirit.
The Kingdom of Heaven is a blessing to such as these. Hopefully it is the blessing for each of us.