Advent Poverty

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There was a guy I ran into on the street last week who asked me for a couple bucks to buy a bus ticket. His cardboard sign also mentioned that he was homeless. He looked pretty bummed, sitting there on the sidewalk. I had this ridiculous desire to stick my hand out, help this guy to his feet, say, “Come on, let’s get out of here,” and… I don’t know what. Walk him, magically, into a more favorable life? Instead, I think I probably said, “Have a good day,” and went on my way. James’ admonition from his second letter to the Christian people came to mind: “If you say to him, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, be well fed’, but do nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” I sighed, my breath vaporizing in the frosty air. Well, shoot.

The Christmas season is typically a time when richness is celebrated. Even those of us who don’t have much in the way of material possessions scrape together what we do have and celebrate our relative richness—in being together, in having a little time off, or in giving hard-earned gifts. There is a lot of beauty in recognizing what we have and celebrating it. But the rapidly approaching Advent season apparently calls for something opposite: a celebration of poverty.

As most of the Christmas-celebrating society hurtles towards the holidays with feverish preparation (or maybe dread, in the absence of perceived richness), we Christians take a detour through the wilderness. If the Christmas rush is taking place on a main artery streaming into town (picture US-23 South at rush hour), celebrating Advent is like getting off five exits early and taking the quiet back roads. Have you ever noticed that, unlike Lent, we are not often encouraged to create a roadmap for the season? Less people say, “I’m giving up chocolate for Advent!” partially because that would be, like, really hard. We long to live in structured ways, for routine is often the marker of discipline, and disciplined is the life of the saints. But perhaps, in Advent, the doing is not the point? By celebrating poverty, we acknowledge emptiness.

This is truly just a suggestion, but I’m interested in exploring this during Advent. Remove some structure. Set all that pressure of final papers, exams, etc. aside for just one red-hot minute each day. Maybe a few minutes. Look inside yourself and find out that within you is miles of emptiness, a vast wilderness that has yet to be shaped or printed on. What you see during your quiet explorations will stand in stark contrast to the typical holiday hustle. Don’t seek to accomplish anything, except to get better at listening. You know what John (the OG of Advent) has to say about wilderness: “Make straight a highway for God!” Turning eyes to the inside to scope out the place where this highway should be seems like the best first step towards building one.

Back to the guy I passed up on the street. I don’t really have a pretty answer to my dilemma, except to recognize the very necessary truth that Christmastime isn’t a merry time for everyone. I don’t want to celebrate the poverty that keeps people cold and lonely on the streets for the holidays. I do want to pursue the kind of spiritual poverty that will allow the long-awaited Christ to flood our lives—my life, and the life of that guy I met outside Starbucks. And your life, too.