First Sunday After Epiphany
– Poverty and Labor
By Rev. Charles Bruehl, D.D.
My dear friends: Only a passing glimpse do the Gospels afford us of the boyhood and adolescence of our Savior. Yet the brief reference which we find in the narrative of St. Luke sufficiently indicates, that, the boyhood of the Lord was one of stainless and matchless beauty, and that His youth and ripening manhood were a delight to men and a joy to heaven; for “Jesus advanced in wisdom and age, and grace with God and man.” The one incident of the early life of our Lord recorded by St. Luke, His visit to the temple and His wonderful conversation with the most renowned Doctors of the Law may be compared to the sudden transitory appearance of the sun on a cloudy day of spring; it tells of splendors hidden and of a glory that will soon burst forth in unrivaled majesty and untarnished luster. That Boy in the temple was the pledge and promise of the mighty Teacher of mankind, Who spoke as One having power and authority and consummate wisdom. After that most astonishing manifestation of superhuman knowledge, Jesus returns into obscurity: “And He went down with them, and came to Nazareth.” Years elapse over which the Evangelists pass in complete, unbroken silence. No details of this charming and important period are given us, to satisfy our pious, and seemingly legitimate, curiosity. But never was there silence more eloquent; never intended reticence more instructive and impressive! It was God who drew an impenetrable veil over this part of the Savior’s life; it was He who wrapped all its events and happenings in oblivion and darkness. What can God mean to teach us, by not permitting anything to be recorded from this period, but, that Christ’s Life at Nazareth was commonplace, as far as outward circumstances are concerned; that it did not differ externally from the daily toil and drudgery of His countrymen; that it was absorbed in the discharge of unpretending duties and in the performance of humble tasks! During these long years His greatness was concealed and His Divinity eclipsed; His wisdom was silent and His omnipotence slumbered in His youthful arms; no stupendous miracle lit up His sojourn in the humble country village. Only His Holiness shone round Him with a brightness that could not put by; for the Son of God may e shorn of all visible pomp and pageantry, He can never be without the unmistakable evidences of His sanctity.
Christ wished to be like those of humblest lot, whose names are not sounded in the halls of fame; whose lives are too uneventful to furnish material to an historian; whose toil is wearisome and monotonous. To them the silence of these long years at Nazareth was to be an inspiration, a source of encouragement and an object-lesson more effective than the most sublime oratory, and, thus, after he had allowed one ray of His Divine Majesty to flash forth and dazzle the eyes of men, He went down with His Holy Mother and foster father to Nazareth into a life of poverty and toil, such as is the common lot, the ordinary inheritance of the masses.
A – The life which our Lord led in Nazareth was the simple life of poor country people. Nazareth was not the city of the wealthy or the great of the earth; it was a plain little town, hidden in some remote valley, where luxury and comfort were unknown. The dwellings of its inhabitants were artless; the furniture scanty; food and dress adapted to unspoiled tastes. With these people our Lord cast His lot and shared their sweet and wholesome poverty. For the poverty of the Nazarenes was not abject destitution or sordid pampering; they were thrifty, and their moderate wants could be easily supplied by honest toil and persistent effort; there was contentment, joy and happiness in their very poverty.
Our Lord’s home did not surpass those of His fellow-citizens in elegance and comfort; for, His foster-father was but an humble village-carpenter, who by all his industry could only secure a very modest competence. Hence it was a poor life which our Lord chose for Himself, not only during the three years of His ministry, but throughout all the time He dwelt on earth. Thus by rejecting the trappings of wealth and selecting the low estate of the poor, He imparted a dignity and grace to poverty, which it never before had possessed in the eyes of men. Christ revolutionized the ideas of manhood, He upset their accepted standards of measuring the value of life and gauging the true worth of man. Truly, humanity has every reason for being thankful to our Lord, that by His condescension He sanctified and honored poverty, which always will be the portion of the vast majority of men, and that He condemned greed and the lust of gain. His example has dignified the lowly estate of the poor and has rebuked the exalted and the purse-proud; it has softened the hardships that accompany indigence, and kindled in the hearts of men sympathy and love for the needy and the lowly.
Ever since Christ chose poverty as His share, it has had its enthusiastic lover, enamored by its beauty and fairness. St. Francis of Assisi made poverty his beloved bride and wedded himself to his Lady Poverty for life, retaining for her a loyalty and tender affection, that have never been excelled. He speaks of his Lady Poverty in terms of endearment and exquisite devotion. Numerous are the followers of the Seraphic Saint, who, like him, renounced wealth and all that wealth can give to imitate more perfectly our Savior in His complete self-abasement. It is this fact that has reconciled the poor, inspired by Christian sentiments, to their lot and made them find in poverty a happiness and consolation which all the wealth of the world could not give them.
But how difficult was it to correct the views of mankind on this subject. Riches had always been coveted by men. The world admired and applauded those who had been successful in the accumulation of large fortunes. The mistaken notion that wealth infallibly brought happiness had become but too prevalent. And countless evils had flown from this error; for, it had aroused the basest and most violent passions in the breasts of men. The desire to possess had bred jealousy, hatred, deception, infidelity, treachery, strife, murder and every variety of sin and crime. Reviewing the horrors wrought by the lust of money in his times, St. Paul cried out: “For the desire of money is the root of all evils; which some coveting have erred from the faith, and have entangled themselves in many sorrows: (I. Tim. vi, 10). To this root our Lord has set the ax, delivering the earth from a host of evils; and if His example were more universally followed, peace and happiness and the spirit of love would reign supreme.
Christ opened the eyes of humanity to the blessings of poverty. That poverty, which our Lord made His own and which He called blessed, is indeed, the happiest condition for men and most favorable to the development of Christian virtue and true manhood. As some fine plants do not prosper in a soil too rich and generous, so the more arduous virtues do not flourish in affluence and luxury. Our greatest men have come from poor homes, where they were trained to self-control, self-reliance and soberness. Poverty enables one to enjoy with keenest zest the minor and inexpensive pleasures of life, which are so much more wholesome and so much purer than those to which the rich become accustomed. In the poorer classes we observe greater attachment to the home and greater firmness of the family ties, and this indicates that home and the family, the sources of the most elevated pleasures of man, realize their ideal form more readily where earthly goods do not abound. Squalor, filth and dire want are not identical with poverty; they are the outgrowth of shiftlessness, intemperance or other ugly vices. Respectable poverty, such as is the common condition of our working people, is clean, sweet and attractive. It affords the necessaries of life by means of daily labor; leaves, perhaps, a narrow margin for an occasional, but infrequent, luxury; allows of some leisure, but not to an extent that it would degenerate into indolence; it makes work necessary, but does not bind down to grinding tasks and degrading slavery. Of this desirable state holy writ says: “Give me neither want, nor riches; give me only the necessaries of life” (Prov. xxx, 8). St. John Chrysostom exalts poverty in a lofty strain: “Wilt thou hear the praises of poverty? Christ sought after it, and said, ‘But the Son of Man hath not where to lay His head.’ Poverty produces courage, and so the Apostles were sent forth in poverty. Let no man then henceforth esteem poverty a cause of disgrace. So great a good is poverty, because it guides us by the hand, as it were, on the path which leads to heaven; it is an anointing for the combat, an exercise great and admirable, a tranquil haven”. May we learn to look on poverty with the eyes of faith, and draw from it the advantages and blessings with which it rewards those who willingly take upon themselves its hardships and burdens. May those few among us who abound in earthly possessions disengage their hearts from all attachment to their wealth, that it may not prove their spiritual undoing and eternal ruin.
B – Our Lord’s life in Nazareth was a life of industry and labor. His days were not spent in aimless idleness, but filled with useful occupations. In fact, His poverty made it imperative to ply some profitable trade, from which He might honorably derive His livelihood. It was natural that He should follow the profession of His foster father. This is not a mere conjecture, but a well-proven fact; for, in the Gospel of St. Mark, He is not only called the carpenter’s son, but a carpenter. “Is not this the Carpenter?” the Nazarenes ask in wonder, when they hear Him discourse in the synagogue (Mark, vi, 3). From an early age He was busy in the workshop of His foster father, for Jewish traditions did not encourage idleness, not even in the young. In His boyhood days He may have assisted His father in some lighter tasks; but as He waxed strong He certainly would share with St. Joseph the more laborious and difficult work. It is manual toil of the coarser kind which is performed by a village-carpenter: repairing of all descriptions, required by the time-worn dwellings of the villagers; putting together of the rude furniture, with which the homes of the poor are equipped; shaping the huge trunk of a tree in a beam or some other useful timber; fashioning yokes and plows for those who needed them; vaired, indeed, were the demands addressed to the village-carpenter in those days, when the division of labor had not yet made the progress which we notice in our times. What a sublime lesson and what beautiful and inspiring picture to behold the Son of God at these mean and inglorious tasks! Painters have immortalized these scenes and have thus cast a glamour about the daily life of the workingman. If the mechanic seeks something to adorn the bare walls of his shop, let him acquire a picture representing our Lord at work in His father’s house, a hammer, or an ax or a chisel or some other tool in His Divine Hands! There is an infinite charm, and inexhaustible inspiration, an elevating power in the mere fact that the Son of God joyfully and cheerfully carried out the onerous duties of an apprentice, and skillfully performed the odd jobs generally done by the smaller tradesmen. Many a valuable service did He thus render to His fellowmen by the work of His Hands, and the bead He ate was well earned, and no one could reasonably begrudge it; for, work and service of some kind, and these alone, give a right to the means of subsistence, except in those who, by some misfortune, are unable to do or to find work. Beads of perspiration not rarely graced His Divine Brow, and His Hands grew rough and callous from much handling of heavy tools. Though not subject to the curse which God had pronounced over man: “In the sweat of thy face shall thou eat bread” (Gen, iii, 19), of His own free will He submitted to the universal law of labor.
Thus, as the Savior took the sting and stigma from poverty, so has He redeemed labor from the disgrace that had become attached to it; for, labor was as much despised and shunned in antiquity as poverty. After Christ’s coming, a new day dawned for those whose daily bread depends on their daily work. Even for the rich it became odious to be a mere drone in the busy beehive of society. Service now was regarded as a badge of honor. Idleness was frowned upon. This change in the views of mankind is due to the example of Christ, who was called the carpenter’s son. Labor is now honorable, because Christ honored and consecrated it. Our Lord demonstrated by his actions that labor is pure and noble, and that it is a great help in the development of manliness.
Let the sons of toil rejoice! Their portion is an honorable and enviable one! They may legitimately boast that their days are not useless and their lives not unprofitable. The progress of civilization, the splendid achievements of modern times are largely owing to their untiring efforts. Work is a blessing to the worker himself. There is an innate power of regeneration in work. It gives content and health; it strengthens and develops all our faculties. It is the salt of the life and the girdle of manliness. It saves the body from effeminacy and the soul from polluting thoughts. It purifies the race and builds up the kingdom of righteousness. No getter power or redemption, save grace, is there than work; if the dissolute can be persuaded to work, their normal regeneration is assured. Rarely is great moral corruption or depravity found in the man who toils day after day, and whose forehead is grimy with the dust of the factory or the soot of the furnace. There is a marvelous potency for renewing and uplifting in steadfast and resolute toil. Carlyle, himself a man of industrious habits, says with true insight: For there is a perennial nobleness, and even sacredness, in work. Were he never so benighted, forgetful of his high calling, there is always hope in a man that actually and earnestly works . . . The blessed glow of labor in him, is it not as purifying fire, wherein all poison is burned up, and of sour smoke itself there is made bright blessed flame!”
My dear Friends: The true value of life does not depend upon outward circumstances. This is the lesson which Christ inculcates by His hidden and retired life in Nazareth. One may attain to the highest perfection, though his deeds do not stir public opinion or with the admiration of mankind. In seclusion and amidst the most ordinary environment, he may grow into spiritual beauty and moral grandeur. No condition of life, however lowly and humble, is an obstacle to the highest form of sanctity; saints have been found in all walks of life. Our Lord wished his life to be a mirror and model, not only for the few privileged ones, but for all. But the vast majority of men are placed, by God’s own appointment, amid the ordinary duties and the humble tasks of uneventful and plain lives. And so He taught us how we may sanctify ourselves by performing, in the right spirit, the little things of every-day occurrence. Let us thank him that He has given to us, the lowly and the humble, such a beautiful and encouraging example; that he has established a type of holiness, to which all may live up. Let us make proper use of the means which He Himself has revealed and sanctified; poverty and labor. Amen.