I was driving home after working out of town the other day and I decided to swing by a Church in Sacramento to make a confession. The priest was very good, kind and insightful, and I left feeling renewed and ready to get home and see my family. The only problem was, I still had over an hour left to drive since it was rush-hour traffic, and I really had to go to the bathroom. I wound up pulling into a Carl’s Jr. to use the restroom. As I got out of my car, a homeless black woman, probably in her late fifties, approached me and asked me if I would be willing to buy her a meal. I told her that I didn’t mind at all – after all I had just come from confession and was feeling pretty good 😉 I asked her what she would like to have from the menu, and she replied that she didn’t care; whatever I wanted to buy her would be fine as she was just very hungry. I wasn’t hungry myself, but I have to admit that a nice cold Coke Zero did sound pretty good about then.
When I went into the lobby, there weren’t any other customers in line, and I had to use the bathroom quite badly by this point. Making a quick detour through the facilities, I came out to discover that there was now a line of three customers and only one check out girl working the register. At this point, if I hadn’t already told the homeless woman that I was going to buy her a meal I would have skipped my Coke Zero and headed home. But, since I didn’t have any cash on hand, I was going to have to use my debit card to buy her some food. That meant that I couldn’t just hand her some money and leave. Instead, I took my place in line, grumbling inwardly about my luck.
Fortunately, the check out girl was the worst fast food employee I’ve ever seen. Literally. Not only did she not have any idea whatsoever about how to do her job, but she made it painfully clear to each and every customer that she couldn’t care less. Every order required her to go fetch her manager in order to show her how to ring it up, or swipe their card, or count change. Since her manager was working drive through she had to wait each time she went to get him and I stood in line for fifteen minutes waiting my turn to watch her fail at taking my order – and she didn’t disappoint. “I’ll take a number two meal, medium size and a separate medium Coke Zero.” Not exactly rocket science. I swiped my debit card, and surprise – she was off to get the manager. I was positive that the reason my debit hadn’t worked was because the machine was merely waiting for her to confirm the payment on her screen, and sure enough – five minutes later – that’s exactly what her manager did. Reached out a single finger and pressed the confirm button on her screen. I’m not kidding. Not only was each order an unsolvable dilemma for her, but she also went out of her way to make sure that we all knew how much we were inconveniencing her by coming in to order food. Awesome.
I was no longer feeling pretty good after my confession. As a matter of fact, I was mostly trying not to think the sort of thoughts which would necessitate me turning right around and driving straight back to the priest. My homeless friend was vacantly waiting in a booth – she had nowhere better to be and was probably pleased as punch about the delay. After all, they couldn’t kick her out while she was waiting on her food. Finally, I got her meal number and my drink and proceeded to the soda dispenser to fill my cup. The Coke Zero was out. I almost lost my salvation.
Rather than ask Ms. employee of the month to attempt to refill the Coke Zero machine, I wisely decided that I didn’t really feel like a drink anyway, and it was time to go home. Can you imagine her trying to refill the soda machine? That’s like asking a two year old to perform nuclear fusion – it’s not going to end well. I dropped off the meal number and my extra empty cup with the homeless woman, muttered, “God bless” almost under my breath, and headed for the door. Outside cops were preparing to arrest another homeless person who was clearly drunk in public.
Christ in Others
I have a confession to make. It is really hard for me to love people like Jesus did. It is hard for me to recognize Him in them. Pearl Bailey (who I actually met once when I was very young) said, “People see God every day, they just don’t recognize him.” And she’s right. When I look at the black homeless lady, burnt out by a lifetime of drugs and alcohol, and hard living, God knows it’s not Christ I see. I’m not excited by the opportunity to buy Jesus a burger, rather I am sourly “doing the right thing.” I don’t see Jesus in the young, foolish, Mexican girl behind the counter who is already so thoroughly disillusioned with her life that she doesn’t care who knows it. She is an inconvenience to me. Someone to put up with. Someone to extend my forced politeness to in order to convince myself, and anyone watching, that I’m a nice guy. And I will guarantee that when they look at me, it’s the fat, white, cynical, middle aged guy who thinks he’s better than every one else that they see – not Christ. And that’s the problem,
If I can’t see Jesus in them, how will they ever see Jesus in me?
“It is”, as C.S. Lewis wrote, “a serious thing, to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ‘ordinary’ people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner — no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment.”1
I think that it may be this very ability, this ability to see Christ in others, the ability to recognize the immortals whom we see on the street, which separates the greatest of the saints from the rest of us who go through life annoyed and repulsed by those we come into contact with. The difference is the saints have taken the words of Christ to heart when He reminds us that,
“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 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, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”2
Mother Teresa recognized in the words of Christ an opportunity to spend each day with her Lord, remarking in an interview with Time Magazine, “We try to pray through our work by doing it with Jesus, for Jesus, to Jesus. That helps us to put our whole heart and soul into doing it. The dying, the crippled, the mentally ill , the unwanted, the unloved–they are Jesus in disguise.” When asked by Time, “What is God’s greatest gift to you?” she responded, “The poor people [through them] I have an opportunity to be with Jesus 24 hours a day.”
Christ commands us to, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”3 and St. John understood this very well indeed when he wrote,“Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.”4 He understood this, because he understood what it was to be loved. As the, “beloved disciple” he had personally experienced the love of Christ, and was able to love others in the same way. It is in becoming a part of Christ’s body that we are able to fulfill the second greatest commandment of all for, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”5 It is because Christ loved me and gave Himself for me, and now lives in me, that I am able to love others with that love. I find that often times my difficulty in seeing Christ in others is an extension of my difficulty in seeing Christ in me. If I am to love my neighbor as myself, I must first love myself. I must experience Christ’s unfailing love for me as St. John did.
The Two-fold Body of Christ
In Scripture we observe two separate connotations for the term, “body of Christ.” It can mean the Church or it can refer to the Eucharist – the body of our Lord. But in an unexpected way the two are joined. The Church teaches that when we receive the Eucharist we receive Christ – body, blood, soul, and divinity. Christ is in me. But, He is also in all the others who partake of communion, both those in my parish, and other Christians around the world. And, it is through that participation in the body of Christ that we become the body of Christ.
“The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”6 St. Augustine says, “Let us rejoice then and give thanks that we have become not only Christians, but Christ himself. Do you understand and grasp, brethren, God’s grace toward us? Marvel and rejoice: we have become Christ. For if he is the head, we are the members; he and we together are the whole man…. the fullness of Christ then is the head and the members. But what does ‘head and members’ mean? Christ and the Church.” And it is as Christ’s Church, His body, that He is made manifest in the world. The incarnation continues in His Church, and it is through us that people encounter Christ.
Mother Teresa recognized that it was the Eucharist which enables us to take Christ to others saying, “Every Holy Communion fills us with Jesus and we must, with Our Lady, go in haste to give him to others. For her, it was on her first Holy Communion day that Jesus came into her life, and so for all of us also. He made himself the Bread of Life so that we, too, like Mary, become full of Jesus. We too, like her, be in haste to give him to others. We too, like her, serve others”7 St. John Chrysostom also recognized this Eucharistic connection saying, “Do you wish to honour the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk, only then to neglect him outside where he is cold and ill-clad. He who said: ‘This is my body’ is the same who said: ‘You saw me hungry and you gave me no food’, and ‘whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me…’. What good is it if the Eucharistic table is over loaded with golden chalices when your brother is dying of hunger. Start by satisfying his hunger and then with what is left you may adorn the altar as well”
I must see Christ in them, that they may see Christ in me.
But, it is not enough that they encounter Christ in us, we must also look to minister to Christ in them. This is why Mother Teresa said, “In the Mass we have Jesus in the appearance of bread, while in the slums we see Christ and touch him in the broken bodies, in the abandoned children.”
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