Little Drummer Boy's Poverty, and Ours

Little Drummer Boy's Poverty, and Ours
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A nervous child approaches a homeless family in the hope that they will be pleased with the only thing he has to offer: some simple music played on his little drum.

It is a strange idea that this event would be cause for celebration -- we might even consider the scene to be nothing short of pathetic. In its very simplicity and humility, though, "Little Drummer Boy" -- perhaps the most underrated of all Christmas songs -- captures the essence of what is so very revolutionary and compelling about the Christian message.

We know well the setting of the manger on Christmas night -- most of us can instantly and fondly picture the comforting scene of the loving family amongst the gentle animals and amazed shepherds. In fact, though, the scene was much harsher than that: the family lived in poverty; they were outcasts in their own society; they (rightly) feared their government; they had no shelter even in which to give birth to their baby, and so in the cold of the winter found themselves in a stable (which was actually, in the more common Christian understanding, a cave).

The plain-spoken Drummer Boy calls our attention to the poverty of this situation as he addresses the infant Christ, simultaneously asking permission to play his drum and apologizing for the inadequacy of his gift; in doing so he not only exhibits remarkable humility, but also an inherent understanding of the very thing that makes this infant "King" so very different than any that had ever been imagined, and so very much like all of us: "I am a poor boy too."

Even as the song brings to mind the simplicity of the scene on Christmas night, it also foreshadows much of what will happen in the brief life of the infant Jesus. That baby, whom the Drummer Boy identified with that night as another poor boy like him, would go on to address the masses in the most important speech ever given, saying, among other things: "blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3). The mother who gave the Drummer Boy permission to play his song ("Mary nodded, pa rum pum pum pum"), the mother in whose arms the infant rested, would some thirty-three years later hold her child again, cradling the dead body of a man who had been tortured and executed in the manner of a common criminal (Michelangelo's Pietà, with its young Madonna holding the dead Jesus, challenges us to imagine that at that moment, the mother was looking down and in fact seeing her clean and untouched infant again, rather than the destroyed body of the grown man).

Every bit of the Christian story, in the context of its time, was profoundly subversive. Poor boys were not to be kings. Salvation was not to be found in death. Humility was not to be celebrated. When a world-devouring empire executed a minor nuisance, that was meant to be the end of the matter. Christ changed everything, broke every rule, shattered every pretension.

In his own way the Drummer Boy does something similar: he shows a different and more moving way to give of ourselves, to do what we can, without pride or worldly ambition: "I played my drum for him / I played my best for him." His simple reward is fitting of the humble scene: "then He smiled at me." 

So, on hearing "Little Drummer Boy" each Christmas, we should be reminded that the very birth we are celebrating is a call to poverty of the spirit. To be poor in spirit, as Christ asked of us on the Mount of Beatitudes, is to admit of our weaknesses, our insecurities, our shortcomings. In recognizing these in ourselves, we are able to feel compassion when we find them in others, and we are moved to act on their (rather than our own) behalf.

This is the best of Christmas and the Christian message: to say, in the manner of a scared young boy before the most unlikely of Kings, in the cold of an often harsh world, "I am a poor boy too."

Kevin Duffy is a member of the Parish Council at the Cathedral of St. Matthew in Washington, DC.

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