December 05, 2012
The Anawim: who are they?
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

Some years ago, the award-winning comic strip by Johnny Hart featured a piece about the mystery of the Incarnation, though it did not mention the phrase.

The cartoon was a whimsical commentary on modern man and woman. It is relevant today because the public commemoration of Christmas is challenged everywhere. It is after all, a legal holiday. The country has no problem honoring American presidents or Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet, protesters complain that their sensibilities are offended by honoring Jesus Christ, if not as God, then certainly as the greatest of all anawim:

It seems to me that since the Fall–
without even thinking it odd 
that man had no trouble at all believing that he can be God. 
How he would do this I cannot conceive ...
tho, he certainly thinks he can–
and yet, he cannot bring himself to believe that God can become ... a Man.

Who were the anawim?

Mary and Joseph of Nazareth, Mahatma Gandhi

The anawim of the Old Testament were the poor of every sort: the vulnerable, the marginalized, and socio-economically oppressed, those of lowly status without earthly power. In fact, they depended totally on God for whatever they owned. The Hebrew word anawim (inwetan) means those who are bowed down.

Mahatma Gandhi understood inwetan as the way of bhakti, that is, loving devotion and surrender to God. In times of suffering, the anawim remained faithful and awaited the good things of the Lord to fill their emptiness, as the Lucan gospel tells us in (Lk 1:53). They delighted in the Lord because they were rooted in him.

Mary of Nazareth belonged to the anawim. Her life of fidelity had singled her out for a special role in God’s salvific plan. She was already betrothed to Joseph, and when God’s plan was put to her, quite naturally, she asked how it would happen. Mary’s free acceptance allowed the Spirit to work in her. In proclaiming her Magnificat, she acknowledged that the Almighty has done great things for her in her lowliness in contrast to God’s dealings with the proud (Lk 1:47).

Mary shines among the anawim about whom Jesus later speaks in the Sermon on the Mount. She is the first model of discipleship in the New Testament.

Like Mary, Joseph of Nazareth also belonged to the anawim.  In a dream, he experienced his own annunciation in which he responded to God’s mandate and assumed his role in salvation-history (Mt1:18-25).  Joseph was deeply troubled that Mary’s child was not his.  He had no foreknowledge of Mary’s Annunciation, no foreknowledge of Mary’s divine pregnancy. He had to be told. Like Joseph of the Old Testament, through a dream, he was asked to entrust his future entirely to God. He understood that by divine choice, he would be the child’s earthly father, assuming responsibility both for legitimizing the child and for naming him. Like Mary, Joseph trusted in God’s providential care.

Jesus, God’s Anaw

In his epistle to the Philippians 2:6-7), St. Paul tells us that Jesus emptied himself taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. The phrase, “he emptied himself” refers in the first place to the Incarnation. Jesus’ kenosis means that he who emptied himself freely chose to deprive himself of something he already possessed. A person who makes himself empty gives up his wealth and becomes poor. St. Francis of Assisi is one famous example of this. Jesus did this so that by his poverty, “(we) might become rich” (2 Cor 8:1-9). He entered into the condition of the powerless anawim, but he did not de-divinize himself of his Godhead. He made himself at one with the poor by becoming absolutely poor.

Jesus emptied himself as love (agape) in order to redeem humanity through kenosis. Agape  led to kenosis, and kenosis, to glory. Love was the only reason for his incarnation, his passion, death, and resurrection.

As model parents, Mary and Joseph raised Jesus in the spirit of the anawim.

He preached with moral authority instead of with temporal power, and the Sermon on the Mount makes the ultimate counter-cultural statement. Gandhi himself treasured the beatitudes as the core of his teaching, and it is said that he took a copy of them wherever he went. 

Today’s Anawim: Victims of Hurricane Sandy

It tears at the heart to look and listen to the victims of Hurricane Sandy.  Last week, as I waited for a light to turn green on a Manhattan street corner, an irate man crossing the street on the red light was shouting and cursing at someone at the other end of his cell phone about money issues. All this for public consumption. Waiting with me was a man who looked up in calm bewilderment and remarked:

“You wonder, what’s made him so angry? I live in Staten Island.  My home was swept away.  My children and my grandchildren have lost everything. Our family has nothing but one another, some clothing, and our dependence on God and total trust in Providence. We are thankful. That fellow needs to put things in perspective.”

This man and his family await the good things of the Lord even in suffering.

Today’s anawim must live in our culture, in our city of New York without appearing weak and without inviting ridicule. Apparently, children, saints, and fools are the only ones who can be admired as anawim. And now the hurricane victims. In God’s eyes, they are grand.

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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