In 1865 the English hymn writer William Chatterton Dix published “What Child Is This,” a hymn set to the well-known 16th century tune known as “Greensleeves.” Dix paints for us a picture of the birth of Jesus in a town on the margins of ancient Rome, wondering at the mystery of why God would enter into human history in such an obscure place.
Dix’s question gets right at the heart of Christian meditation on the nativity of Christ: the mystery of why the Incarnation happened not in a center of power or wealth, but rather amidst poverty, forced migration, and uncertainty.
The reason, I think, has something to do with the transformation of vision that happens as a consequence of faith. The scene of the infant Savior being laid in a feeding trough, Dix suggests, is really the place where the divine Word is pleading on behalf of sinners, like a lawyer before a jury about to condemn them to death. In his poem “The Manger Throne,” published two years later than the song, he writes,
Dix tells us that through faith, we see the Holy Family in a palace. The floor is made of precious jewels and light fills the scene; God’s messengers dance about and sing good news to shepherds in the fields around. They hurry to the scene to drink it in. It is the most beautiful place in all the world.
What, after all, is a “mean estate”? In Dix’s 19th century English, it called to mind that which is low class, humble, vulgar—in the sense of the Latin vulgaris, common. It is telling that our words “mean” and “vulgar” are pejorative, for we inherit the note of judgment found in upper class references to the poor: they are filthy, uneducated, unrefined, and given over to baser passions. A “mean estate,” though, is simply a place where common people live—not kings or aristocrats, not CEOs or celebrities. You are likely to find cows and donkeys there—symbols of a working farm, which are little more than sources of bad smells to cosmopolitans.
Why lies he in such mean estate? Because it is among the mean of the world that the holy family is still most at home. Among Mexican Americans walking some 32 miles in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a pregnant Mary is honored and welcomed as one of their own. In San Fidel, New Mexico, Joseph is the patron of a thriving school of Native Americans. And among so many people affected by disasters over the last several months, the nativity of our Savior at Christmas still offers them hope and connection to others.
God enters human history in a place of mean estate because it is less likely that people there will be seduced by the ephemeral goods of their own fabrication. In mean estates, people must rely on their faith: they must enter into community with each other, live by God’s laws, and hope that their Lord has counted the hairs on their head and labors to bring about his Kingdom in their lives. By entering into a mean estate, the helpless infant Jesus began his ministry fully dependent on the good will of others: first, his parents; but later, those who sheltered his family in Egypt and those who supported the family business in Nazareth. Perhaps in his Wisdom, the Father knew that learning such dependence on others was a prerequisite for the compassion Jesus came to show in his public ministry years later.
In my work with Catholic Extension, I witness many stories that manifest the intimate connection between meanness and generosity. One recent story is of the mission diocese which gave back a grant in order to help those hit by the hurricanes earlier this year. Many such stories persuade me that meanness is, in the Father’s wisdom, a prelude to greater glories. The 17th century Anglican clergyman Robert South once preached of “[t]he great purpose that brought Christ out of his Father's bosom, and clothed him with the infirmities and meannesses of our nature,” suggesting that it was through these miseries that Christ showed people the path towards the crown of heavenly glory. Let us, then, pray that together we might welcome Christ through our solidarity with all those of mean estate.
Dr. Tim Muldoon is Catholic Extension's Director of Mission Education.