At the 1999 Academy Awards ceremony, Italian filmmaker and actor Roberto Begnini earned a well-deserved Oscar for a film he directed and in which he had the featured role: "Life is Beautiful," a World War II drama.

The filmmaker's rather eccentric behavior at the eagerly-anticipated event seemed to captivate the viewing audience and endeared him to moviegoers worldwide. In his memorable acceptance speech -- one touched by a wry sense of humor -- he offered words of praise for his parents in his beloved homeland of Italy.

"I also want to thank my parents who gave me the greatest gift a child could ever desire: poverty!" he declared.

The Christmas event, the birth of the Messiah, occurred in extreme poverty. The mother of Jesus wrapped her newborn child in swaddling clothes and placed Him in a manger, a feeding trough for animals.

In St. Luke's narrative, God's glory is unexpectedly revealed in what amounts to a homeless shelter, not among the gold and silver of a royal palace. In truth, on the night of His birth, the infant Jesus' security was like that of a roadside beggar.

Throughout His entire life, Jesus shared the lot of the poorest of Israel. Today, when in the affluent Western world children are pampered 'round the clock, it is almost impossible to form an idea of the deprivation Jesus had to endure during His infancy and childhood. One is reminded of images of children who suffer from hunger and have no clothing to cover their emaciated bodies.

Only a short time after His birth, Jesus would be a political refugee, in flight from the homicidal wrath of a deranged despot. English mystic Caryll Houselander was right in writing of "The Passion of the Infant Christ" in a 1949 book.

The incarnation of the eternal Word, as seen from God's eyes, was a descent into a turbulent, disobedient and unredeemed world. The mystery of human iniquity came right to the fore. It is revealed before us in the joyful mystery of the Nativity, in its poverty, its injustice and its danger.

Yet, at the same time, there was tremendous joy. "And the angel said to them, you have nothing to fear! I come to proclaim Good News to you -- tidings of great joy to be shared by the whole people. This day in David's city a savior has been born to you, the Messiah and Lord" (Lk 2:10-11).

In his letter to the fledgling Christian community at Corinth, St. Paul writes of God's unfathomable generosity. "For you know how generous our Lord Jesus has been: He was rich, yet for our sake He became poor, so that through His poverty you might become rich."

If we wish to understand and appreciate the humility of God, all that is necessary is to look at the infant Jesus lying in a manger. From a "homeless shelter," God speaks to us and answers the question, "What is God like?"

The desperate circumstances of Christ's birth inspired St. Francis of Assisi to start the custom of setting up a living nativity scene. He wanted to draw attention to the poverty in which Christ entered this world.

In a letter he wrote to a friend, John de Vellito, St. Francis exclaimed, "I would make a memorial of that child who was born in Bethlehem and in some sort behold with bodily eyes the hardships of His infant state, lying on hay in a manger with the ox and the ass standing by."

In his slim book, "Toward the Light," esteemed biblical scholar Cardinal Carlo Martini explains why the birth of a poor king ought to fill our hearts with abundant joy. He writes: "This tiny little baby who might seem marginal in the course of the great events of the world is instead an unmistakable sign that, with Him, and in Him, everything in the world that is small, poor, weak and rejected is important."

From the beginning of His life until the end, Jesus draws the entire world to Himself: to His simplicity, humility and poverty.

On Christmas, the Catholic faithful heed the call of the angels, who once instructed the shepherds to go over to Bethlehem (which means "house of bread") and see the event which the Lord has made known (Lk 2:15).

In the consecrated bread and wine, the communicant receives the one who made Himself so small and so poor that the mystery of heaven can be held in the palm of one's hand!

(Father Yanas is pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Troy.)