Reflecting the light

Drawing closer to poor reveals unexpected treasure
December 3, 2009

How do we encounter the poor? Are they simply the recipients of our unwanted clothing or our spare change, forgotten until we are confronted by a Salvation Army bell-ringer or a donation-collection truck?

Jesus called the poor blessed because they more readily recognize and receive the kingdom of heaven. People who are the most vulnerable often discover that what they need can only come from God.

Each meeting with shelter or a meal or the kindness of a stranger can be seen as divine providence.

Those who know greater economic stability often forget the reality that life itself is a gift, and the consequent particularities of breath and food, health and the love of others are also gifts. The tragic result is that those not currently in want may be led to see their neighbors' straitened circumstance as laziness, improvidence or even the result of the poor person's own sin. Judgment quickly follows self-satisfaction. Gratitude and vulnerability form the antidote.

Francis of Assisi spoke of the treasure of the poor, and that apparent oxymoron has the ability to draw us deeper into God's mystery. Where have you been most aware of your own dependence on others? That is where you and I are most likely to meet God – in the depths of illness, grief, incapacity or abandonment.

Incarnate encounter with the poor draws us closer to our own dependence. Fear of that encounter with dependence often prompts us to keep our distance. We're going to miss the treasure if we insist on keeping the poor at arm's length.

The mystery of the Incarnation is about radical dependence. God's own poverty is made evident in frail human flesh, as Jesus is born to homeless and poor parents in an occupied land. God has only God's own self to give, and it is the most priceless gift imaginable. God didn't send a check to save his errant brood, God sent our Elder Brother.

Our family connections are strengthened -- made more real -- in sharing his work and sending ourselves into the midst of vulnerable humanity, including the dark recesses of our own hearts. Go and meet the poor and discover the treasures of rejoicing at small blessings, a feast in the midst of famine, endurance in the face of the world's dismissal, hope in the darkest night.

One of my favorite images of this comes from the childhood of a Greek peasant during World War II.1

One day Alexander discovered a piece of mirror from a crashed German motorcycle. He began to play with it and discovered that he could use it to reflect light into dark holes and crevices. As he grew up, he discovered in it the meaning of his own life, "shining light into dark places."

We become those bits of mirror when we approach the dark places of life. The mirror can't do any significant reflective work if it stays too far away from the dark. The image of God in which we are created is meant to be a mirror, reflecting the light of the world into encounters where our connection with the divine is unrecognized. The surprise may be that the poor can make a bright mirror for those whose confidence is in the bank.

This Advent, go looking for mirrors. You are more likely to find them in or near places that seem pretty poor and dark and mean. May you find the light of the world and become a reflector yourself.

1Robert Fulghum, It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It. p 174ff