I once heard a homily at a legislative Red Mass that I will never forget. It was thoroughly Socratic in approach, first seducing us into a thought world through provocative questions before detonating the prophetic bomb in the depths of our conscience.
The Gospel that day was Matthew 25:31-46, the parable of the Last Judgment. Here was his message as I recall it:
Only the holy get into heaven, right? What does that mean? To be holy is to be ‘set apart,’ to be different, other. What sets us apart, makes us different and other? What’s our Christ-difference? How do we look different from our non-Catholic neighbors? What do the Gallup polls say? If people who worked with us were interviewed and asked, ‘What sets this person apart?’ what might they be able to say?
We should think like this. We should examine our consciences at night by saying, ‘What set me apart today; what made me identifiable as a son or daughter of God? As a disciple of Christ? Would people encounter Christ in the way I speak? By the way I act? By the way I spend my money? By the way I spend my time? By the way I respond to suffering and hardships? By the way I respond to insults or accusations or gossip? By the way I approach my sexuality? By the way I pray before a meal in public? By my work ethic? By the way I choose to love, or refuse to hate? By the way I am faithful to my spouse? By the way I tell the truth with courageous love?’
There must be some discernible difference! If not, we are dead in faith and a scandal to the world.
Years ago I was in Ethiopia at the Catholic Cathedral in Addis Ababa, visiting as an envoy of solidarity from the U.S. representing the Catholic community. Just before a big Mass celebrated in honor of us visiting clerics from America, I was walking across the large public square in front of the Cathedral. There was a mass of pathetic humanity lining the path along which I walked, all of them begging and pleading for alms as I walked by; emitting a terrible chorus of grunting groans. I was told they were saying “mercy, mercy.” I was so uncomfortable and, I admit, fearful, that I walked in great haste past them, refusing to make eye contact for fear of being drawn into this vortex of human need. I quickly vested for Mass inside and we began the celebration in great splendor, with ethereal chant, the church filled with colorful garments and ornate vestments. The stench of body odor outside was forgotten in the deliciously sweet myrrh-laden incense that filled the church.
But it was the homily that crashed on me like an oak tree falling, or a thunderbolt crashing into my mind; into my inner conscience. The homilist, a native Ethiopian priest, quoted St. John Chrysostom at length. It was nearly his whole homily, and it was in that moment a devastating indictment on my own inhumanity. It ran like this:
“Do you want to honor Christ’s body? Then do not scorn him in his nakedness, nor honor him here in the church with silken garments while neglecting him outside where he is cold and naked. For he who said: This is my body, and made it so by his words, also said: ‘You saw me hungry and did not feed me, and inasmuch as you did not do it for one of these, the least of my brothers, you did not do it for me.’ What we do here in the church requires a pure heart, not special garments; what we do outside requires great dedication.
Let us learn, therefore, to be men of wisdom and to honor Christ as he desires. For a person being honored finds greatest pleasure in the honor he desires, not in the honor we think best. Peter thought he was honoring Christ when he refused to let him wash his feet; but what Peter wanted was not truly an honor, quite the opposite! Give him the honor prescribed in his law by giving your riches to the poor. For God does not want golden vessels but golden hearts.
Now, in saying this I am not forbidding you to make such gifts; I am only demanding that along with such gifts and before them you give alms. He accepts the former, but he is much more pleased with the latter. In the former, only the giver profits; in the latter, the recipient does too. A gift to the church may be taken as a form of ostentation, but an alms is pure kindness. Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups, when he himself is dying of hunger? First, fill him when he is hungry; then use the means you have left to adorn his table. Will you have a golden cup made but not give a cup of water? What is the use of providing the table with cloths woven of gold thread, and not providing Christ himself with the clothes he needs? What profit is there in that? Tell me: If you were to see him lacking the necessary food but were to leave him in that state and merely surround his table with gold would he be grateful to you or rather would he not be angry? What if you were to see him clad in worn-out rags and stiff from the cold, and were to forget about clothing him and instead were to set up golden columns for him, saying that you were doing it in his honor? Would he not think he was being mocked and greatly insulted?
Apply this also to Christ when he comes along the roads as a pilgrim, looking for shelter. You do not take him in as your guest, but you decorate floor and walls and the capitals of the pillars. You provide silver chains for the lamps, but you cannot bear even to look at him as he lies chained in prison. Once again, I am not forbidding you to supply these adornments; I am urging you to provide these other things as well, and indeed to provide them first. No one has ever been accused for not providing ornaments, but for those who neglect their neighbor a hell awaits with an inextinguishable fire and torment in the company of the demons. Do not, therefore, adorn the church and ignore your afflicted brother, for he is the most precious temple of all.”
That liturgy changed me. As I walked back across the plaza toward the car that would take us to the episcopal residence, I must have spent 30 minutes greeting these beggars; no, these men and women; no, these most beloved sons and daughters of God. I had nothing material to give them, but like Peter in Acts 3:6, what I could give them was Jesus; the healing love of Jesus that comes through eye contact; through touch; through my priestly blessings; through treating each of them as a human being, a child of God, infinite in worth and made in His image and likeness. Though I had come to bring from America the promise of material support for these people, I had forgotten love.
At the end of my pilgrimage through ‘beggar alley,’ I was a changed man. Humbled to the dust, but filled with ethereal joy, and not hellish shame. As Mother Teresa said so well, ‘The poor teach us how to love. They are our masters and we their servants.’
This amazing homily reminded me of the Aidan Kavanaugh quote I so often reference,
The liturgy, like the feast, exists not to educate but to seduce people into participating in common activity of the highest order, where one is freed to learn things which cannot be taught.
Quelle est la différence?
I will round out this powerful message with the text of a report given by a pagan Roman official, Aristides, to the Emperor Hadrian somewhere around the year 120 A.D. He was carrying out an investigation on the early Christian communities seeking justification to outlaw Christianity. Here’s the difference he found:
They never fail to help widows; they save orphans from those who would hurt them. If a man has something, he gives freely to the man who has nothing. If they see a stranger, Christians take him home and are happy, as though he were a real brother.
They don’t consider themselves brothers in the usual sense, but brothers instead through the Spirit of God. And if they hear that one of them is in jail, or persecuted for professing the name of their redeemer, they all give him what he needs. If it is possible, they bail him out. If one of them is poor and there isn’t enough food to go around, they fast several days to give him the food he needs.
This is really a new kind of person.
There is something divine in them.