Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Of gifts and Magi and poverty

Happy Feast of the Epiphany!

Okay, I know--if, like me, you are a Catholic in America and attend an O.F. Mass you celebrated the feast of the Epiphany this past Sunday. Today is the traditional date, though, and most Catholics I know quite like for there to be twelve days of Christmas, so I think it's fine to celebrate on both days. This is not one of those posts where I'm going to join in the ranting about moving feast days to Sundays in a non-Catholic country where employers and schools don't care if it's Jan. 6 because it's just a Wednesday after the Christmas/New Year's holidays to them which actually makes more sense than many of the ranters usually think--but, like I said, this is not one of those posts.

I was thinking this morning about O. Henry's lovely little story titled The Gift of the Magi. If you've never read it, you can read it for free at that link.  To me, it's a timeless tale of love and sacrifice, which are so interconnected that they might as well be the same thing.

But I was also thinking about an essay by a Learned Scholar I once read about this same story. Alas, I can't remember the name of the scholar or the publication, no doubt an erudite one, where his essay was published. The Learned Scholar opined that the story, though nice enough in its way, is completely unrealistic. People like Della and Jim, the impoverished main characters of the story, just didn't exist, even in O. Henry's day--at least, not in the rose-colored hues that O. Henry painted them in. They were Poor, you see, and everybody knows that the Poor are that way because they deserve it. Jim probably drank and beat his lovely wife. Della probably hovered between the co-dependency that got her what she wanted out of Jim and the perpetual role of a cringing doormat (as feminism hadn't yet been invented to liberate her from the chains of domestic servitude and wifely submission). Both were guilty of squandering what little educational opportunities they had been given (though in those days such opportunities were nothing like the ones offered children today).

And so, the Learned Scholar imagined, when Jim came home with the combs for Della, teeming with resentment and anger that the gift-giving customs of a dead religious feast forced him either to sell his watch or feel forever guilty over not doing so, and found that Della had cut her hair--why, Jim probably slapped her around, and she probably hid the gold watch chain and later pawned it to buy herself the sort of attire that could earn her a bit of extra money should she don it and stand on a street corner or two of an evening--because that is what the Poor are really like.

Poor Learned Scholar! His poverty is greater than that of many people who live a hand-to-mouth existence, and yet know that love and sacrifice are both very real, and both so interconnected that they might as well be the same thing.

I wondered (and still do) whether this nation's latent strains of Puritanism that have burst forth in our generation in their new guise of Prosperity Gospel are at least partly responsible for forming the minds and imaginations of people like my Learned Scholar.  The Puritan sees the poor and thinks that they must be guilty of something, and knows that at the very least they are guilty of laziness and the foolish squandering of opportunity, because anyone who works hard and takes life and learning with the kind of dead seriousness both demand is bound to get ahead.  The Prosperity Gospel adherent sees the poor and thinks they must be guilty of something, and knows that at the very least they are guilty of laziness and the foolish squandering of opportunity, because if they prayed right and worked right and studied right and got themselves right with the Almighty, the Almighty would make sure they could afford a McMansion by the sweat of their own brows, instead of living in "free" housing generously provided by the taxpayer and gathering "free" groceries also generously provided by the taxpayer (but, of course, God spares those who get themselves right with Him from such cheeseparing generosity, which is as it should be).

The Magi came to find a king, and found instead a simple family who were certainly not rich or powerful. I have seen some ugly things in recent weeks posted by Christians claiming that of course Joseph and Mary and Jesus were not "poor," not really, because Joseph worked hard as a carpenter and provided well for his little family--with the thinly veiled idea that the opposite of poverty is work, and the opposite of work is poverty, as if all one needs to do to escape poverty is work. This would come as a great surprise not only to the little family at Nazareth, but to plenty of people throughout history, who worked harder than most of us moderns can imagine and yet barely managed to provide the minimal necessities of food, clothing, and shelter for the people under their care. They were not lazy; they were not opportunity-squanderers; and yet they were poor, despite their hard work and struggles--and there are plenty of poor among us today who fit this exact description.

The Magi went to a palace to find the newborn King, but they found Him in a humble home, surrounded not by luxury or wealth or the trappings of power but by the simplicity of the ordinary poverty of so many of the world's people. The people who still seek Christ in the faces of the poor, serving Him in them, have a wisdom many of us do not yet possess.

1 comment:

Siarlys Jenkins said...

You are too soft on Learned Scholar. I too like the story "Gift of the Magi," and I enjoy a great deal of O. Henry's lesser known material also. Unlike Learned Scholar, I've spent most of my adult life working AND living in neighborhoods that might be considered "poor" (in material wealth), and which certainly have their share of vicious assaults, wife beating, dysfunctional families... but a whole lot more besides, stable two-parent families, parents really working hard to prepare their children for a reasonably successful life, devoted couples who might have given each other gifts just as the two in O. Henry's story did... Learned Scholar's alternative scenario is possible, but it is by no means certain... and the kind of couple he describes probably wouldn't have bought gifts for each other in the first place.