We are wayfaring strangers traveling through “this world of woe,” as the folksong says. We will see many things on our life’s journey.
God is with us, but it doesn’t always feel that way. When will we know that God is with us? When will we know it and believe?
“CUANDO EL POBRE” (“When the Poor Ones”) answers our question with good news from the poor, citing specific transformative encounters with the Sacred, including:
~ When the thirsty water give unto us all …
~ When we love though hate at times seems all around us …
~ When we know that love for simple things is better …
~ When each stranger that we meet is called a neighbor …
The refrain instructs the singers that, when we engage in these ways “… then we know that God still goes that road with us!” (va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar!) The reward of the journey is not the destination, but the interactions we have along the way.
This hymn was composed in 1971 by two men from Spain. The award-winning poet and journalist José Antonio Olivar came from a seafaring family. Miguel Manzano was a cantor at age 8 in a cathedral near the border of Portugal and became a composer and professor at the Higher Conservatory of Music in Salamanca.
Their song now appears in the hymnals of many denominations including United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran, Moravian, and Presbyterian.
Written when Liberation Theology was turning the Christian world upside down, this hymn was inspired by Matthew 25: 31-46, in which Jesus says “For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
Here, Jesus instructs us to see his face in the least privileged, the least powerful, to intentionally reject greed and embrace compassion.
The hymn’s refrain also recalls the journey of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Just when they felt most lost and abandoned, Christ was walking beside them.
HOLY WANDERERS IN CHRISTIAN LEGEND
Christian legends abound with stories of journeys. Quest tales almost always involve hardship, surprise encounters, valuable lessons, and glimpses of the Sacred.
In dozens of post-Biblical folktales and literary narratives, rich and poor alike set out in search of Christ, bearing gifts great and small for the Holy Child, sacrificing dreams along the way, and being transformed.
LA BEFANA: In Italy, the story is told about the Christmas Witch. A grandmother, she turns down an invitation to join the Magi’s entourage because she is too busy baking and sweeping. Later, she regrets her choice and hurries to Bethlehem, but by the time she gets there the stable is empty. Everyone has gone home. To this day, she is still searching for the Holy Babe. At Epiphany, she flies through the skies on her broom, greeting youngsters with gifts, and glimpsing the Holy Child in each one. A similar story is told in Slavic folklore about another grandmother, Baba Yaga.
GOOD KING WENCESLAS: This legend tells of the 10th century Bohemian king who goes barefooted on a bitter winter journey to bring food, wine, and fuel to a poor peasant. The song by English hymn-writer John Mason Neale ends with the message, “Ye who now will bless the poor/ Shall yourselves find blessing.”
ARTABAN: In Henry Van Dyke’s famous Story of the Other Wise Man (1895), Artaban, a fourth wise man, misses the manger scene and hurries on to Egypt and beyond in a desperate search for Jesus. Along the way, he stops to help suffering strangers, then hurries on his quest. He arrives in Jerusalem on the day of the crucifixion. Artaban, injured in an accident, hears a voice as he is dying, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, thou hast done it unto me.”
TAOR: In French author Michel Tournier’s novel The Four Wise Men (1982), a fourth wise man, here named Taor, is the “eternal latecomer” and the Prince of Sweets in search of a specific recipe for a pistachio delicacy. He runs into trouble and is sentenced to hard labor in a salt mine for 33 years. After seemingly endless days of suffering and thirst, he’s released from bondage and arrives in Jerusalem on the Feast of the Passover, still seeking the one he calls the Divine Confectioner.
AMAHL: In Gian Carlo Menotti’s 1951 opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, Amahl journeys with the Magi after he offers his crutch to right a wrong.
From Sir Galahad’s search for the Holy Grail in the Arthurian legend to the Mexican legend of the Poinsettia, and from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress to the Murry children’s cosmic journey in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (1962), we know that there are big lessons to be learned along the way in our encounters with others. In the 1960s, Malcolm Boyd, an Episcopalian priest, penned Are You Running with Me Jesus?, a book of prayers, reminding readers that Christ is present, keeping up the pace beside modern, multi-tasking believers.
Ours is a journeying God who surprises us on the road, teaching us about generosity and courage, urging us to dig deep and find what it is we have to give, encouraging us to push past the safe and familiar to the surprise of the Sacred all around us. God still goes that road with us.
TO GO DEEPER
“History of Hymns: ‘When the Poor Ones’” by Dr. C. Michael Hawn, UMC Discipleship Ministries website
The Legend of Old Befana by Tomie dePaola, picture book, reviewed on Goodreads
“JR’s Latest: A Child Caught Between the U.S.-Mexico Border” by Melena Ryzik, The New York Times, Setp. 7, 2017
YOUTUBE: An arrangement of the hymn, sung by the choir and congregation of First Plymouth Church, Lincoln, Nebraska. (With lyrics.)