St Peter's Catholic Church Shoreham-by-Sea West Sussex Inglatera December 22, 1989
Dear Friends in Latin America: Did Joseph and Mary have the price of a suite in the Holiday Inn at Bethlehem? Was the Holy Family well-off by Galilean standards? Did carpenters in Nazareth wear well-heeled sandals?
These questions or insinuations, differently worded perhaps, are typical of a certain kind of letter to British newspapers published on the rare occasions (like Christmas) when religion is allowed a voice.
They seem to me to contain an obsessive fear of admitting that Jesus could have been poor. Never mind the evidence of the text or of the context. Never mind the beliefs or the instincts of 2000 years. Jesus must be shown to
have been a bit more like the present inhabitants of western Europe than the theologians would have us believe.
On a Saturday afternoon in December I was in nearby Brighton, a mecca for shopaholics. In Churchill Square a Salvation Army band played and collecting-boxes were shaken. Competing for custom were the ambulancemen and a newspaper called Socialist Worker.
I noticed one frenzied shopper contribute to all three causes, and I wondered whether it was sentimentality, religion or just a liking for collection boxes that was behind her all-embracing charity.
Here at St Peter's the response to the Advent appeal was very generous. Nearly £1000 was sent to Cardinal Flume's Ethiopian emergency fund. At our primary school the children made a collection of soft toy animals for my parish in Nicaragua. Several families have invited foreign students from Sussex University to Christmas Day hospitality.
Jesus was poor in His birth, during His life and at His death. The Bethlehem shepherds were probably even poorer (their occupation was regarded as impure), the blind beggars at Galilee were certainly more wretched, and a fertile imagination can conjure up a death more horrible even than crucifixion. He was not the poorest of the poor, but poor He certainly was.
Archaeologists tell us that Nazareth was a village of no more than 20 or 30 families at the time of Christ. In that case Joseph would have been more like an odd-job man than a full-time carpenter and joiner.
Mending broken doors, making the occasional yoke, fixing a leaky roof, and — above all — joining in the many agricultural chores at sowing time or harvest. This is a picture mirrored today in thousands of Third World villages of a similar size in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
I cannot judge the motives of the shopaholics in Churchill Square, but I like to think that for most of the Catholics in Shoreham-by-Sea Jesus is alive this year in the walking skeletons of Ethiopia, in the children of a parish in Nicaragua, and in the homeless students of Sussex University.