The Son renounced his eternal self as God (cf. Phil 2, 6-8) to become human and eventually lead a countercultural guerilla Jewish holiness movement in the Galilee. The historian Peter R. L. Brown unpacks for us one dimension of Jesus’ having taught, “Anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:33).
In his book Through the Eye of a Needle, Brown illustrates an example of renouncing one’s “possessions” to imitate Jesus in the person of Paulinus of Nola who, among the richest in ancestral landholdings within the Roman senatorial class of the 4th century, surrendered his family’s wealth for Christ, eventually to become a priest and then bishop in Nola, Italy. He dedicated his wealth to serving and enhancing the shrine of St. Felix within a “poor” community of once upper Roman notables who became with him and his wife renunciates for Christ. “Their choice to live simply meant in reality to live without the social power of their former state.” Paulinus only slowly renounced control of his wealth, but he more abruptly renounced the “splendor” attached to his possessions.
Brown writes: “Splendor-éclat was the key term in the definition of wealth. Splendor assumed income. But ancient practitioners of splendor gave little thought to financial matters. Splendor had everything to do with how one looked, how one dressed, how one ate, how one traveled, and how one bathed. Wealth sheathed the bodies of the rich with a set of unmistakable signals of prosperity and good fortune. Having renounced their ‘splendor,’ Paulinus and his community became ordinary, they were enveloped in the dull smell of the under bathed” (220).
“The Christ of Paulinus was ‘poor’ because He was a God who had hidden his splendor through an act of mighty self-effacement. ‘Humility’ and ‘humble’ are words to which Paulinus returns incessantly when speaking of Christ. And by ‘humble’ Paulinus meant a posture to the world that was defined in more sharply social terms than can be conveyed by the sentimental modern associations of the word: to be humilis in the later Roman empire was to be, quite bluntly, ‘unimportant’” (222).
In whom do we actually “take refuge” as we shall claim in this Sunday liturgy’s Responsory to Psalm 90? Are we taking refuge in simplicity in imitation of Jesus, conscientiously choosing to be “ordinary,” or rather are we pulling every lever we can to spotlight our being among our society’s VIPs? Jesus’ blessing on the “poor in spirit” is a gauntlet thrown down for many who think we can be Christians while striving to publicize that we live in splendoribus.
Sober Christian reading is recommended for us in Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (2012).
By Jonathan Montaldo