On the East coast of the United States, where I live, these last days of December are dark. It’s not fully light until around 8:00 in the morning and it’s dark before 5:00 in the evening. We just passed the Winter Solstice three days ago so we are, quite literally, in the darkest days of the year. Having passed the Solstice, the nights do begin to grow shorter and the days grow longer, but the change comes very slowly, almost imperceptibly. This morning as I write this, on Christmas Eve, it is 9 degrees Fahrenheit. Over the next few weeks, we will slowly notice the mornings growing brighter and the afternoons stretching out longer. But it will be slow coming and we will only notice it if we watch carefully.
Something about this pattern, especially as the darkness slowly recedes, teaches me something each year. We are small. While we humans are not known for our humility, this pattern of darkness and light growing and receding, illustrates our dependence on the earth, the sun, the turning in which we live. Light comes and darkness overtakes it. Darkness gives way to light and light returns. Its proportions change. It keeps happening. We have to live with its effects.
We are small, humble, poor beings, really. We are mostly water. We live for fifty or eighty or ninety years, depending on where we live, and then we are gone. Our lives hold moments of great joy, deep sadness, and daily routines. All this is good. As it should be. But it always helps me when I remember it, our humility, our smallness.
If I have a spirituality, it is Franciscan. While I am not catholic, the life of Francis of Assisi has inspired me, since I was a boy. Francis saw poverty and smallness at the center of his Christian faith. He came to a full faith when he rejected privilege and wealth, seeing Jesus of Nazareth in the lepers who lived on the outskirts of Assisi. His life has always presented a challenge to organized religions, especially his own catholic church. Many people who call themselves Christian, have a hard time with the poverty of Jesus. It’s easier to understand Christianity as America-affirming, capitalism-affirming, self-affirming. It is not, however, any of those things.
The Christmas stories, while likely not historical, present a challenge many not only resist, but cannot even see. Francis, 800 years ago, sought to make the poverty, at the center of the Christmas story, unavoidable. Near the city of Greccio, he asked his brothers to create a living nativity, with animals, local people as Mary, Joseph, and shepherds. They were outdoors, in a stable, with cows, sheep, and all the substances and smells that animals and the outdoors bring with them. Francis knew most people, certainly poor people, could not travel to Bethlehem to receive spiritual indulgences and he wanted to make as real as possible, the unsettling poverty of the birth of this Messiah. So Greccio becomes another lesson for many to ignore. Perhaps one of the most uncomfortable, radical ideas is that if God becomes human, he becomes human in a homeless child, soon to be a refugee, soon to be executed. This is good news. It’s just not easy news.
Maybe even God is small. Maybe that’s beautiful. We surely are, both small and beautiful.
Artwork by Joseph Mulamba-Mandangi