Christians believe that Jesus Christ was a man, subject to human grief and mortality, and yet also an omnipotent God. In the breadth of his power, Jesus could have chosen to be a human being of any description, stature, degree, condition; and yet he chose to be poor. Jesus’ poverty is an important attribute; the most important (after his divinity) to some of the early Church Fathers, to St Francis of Assisi and his followers in Umbria in the thirteenth century and to the English poet Christopher Harvey in the seventeenth:
It was thy Choice, whilst thou on Earth didst stay,
And hadst not whereupon thy head to lay.
To the modern mind, both poverty and divinity have lost conviction; but for several centuries, from about the reign of the Roman emperor Constantine until Columbus’ voyages of discovery, the biography of Jesus fascinated the Europeans and they took it with them wherever they went. Throughout the Middle Ages, Jesus is appearing to the saints not just as God but as pauper muffled, in the nightmare of Peter the Banker in sixth-century Alexandria, in the cloak Peter had that day tossed in a fit of fury at a beggar. St Francis ordered his followers ‘not to handle or receive money and coins, or cause them to be received; and have no more use and thought for money and coins than for stones.' The implications of Christian poverty are very profound: for if the poor are the image of salvation, then the daily struggle to ward off poverty – the whole worldly existence of accumulation and provision – is merely a side-show to the true drama of life. In time, of course, that side-show will become so elaborate and various that it will gain its own self-evident authority and displace the other attractions of existence.
Text: James Buchan, Frozen Desire, New York, Farar Straus Giroux, 1997.
Above: Martin Schongauer and Studio, Noli Me Tangere, from the Altarpiece of the Dominicans, 1480, Oil on pine panel, Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar.
Below: Tyre silver shekel dating from the lifetime of Jesus.