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An Epiphanic Visit

In our Gospel reading this past weekend (Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time), Jesus taught us about the greatest commandment, which is twofold: love of God and love of neighbor (Mat 22:34-40). And who is our neighbor that we are called to love? Jesus tells us, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to Me” (Mat 25:40), as does the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37). The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is rooted in these Gospel passages. In our rule it clearly states, “In the poor, [Vincentians] see the suffering Christ” (Rule 1.8). Our love expressed to our Neighbors in Need is not only a reflection of our love for God, but a reflection of His love for our neighbors.

Nearly a year ago, a fellow Vincentian and I had the great privilege of visiting Ms. Jones and her 6 children. When we arrived, we were greeted by Ms. Jones and her young son. In their poorly lit living room, there was a small end table with a decorative vase and a tall bookcase with family pictures. No couches. No dining room table. Nowhere to sit but the floor. The single small table was sticky with a green goo and the young son proceeded to use a brillo pad and a wet rag to clean the table for us to work on. Then, at the instructions of his mother, he went into their small, dark kitchen with dishes piled in the sink, and brought out a wobbly chair for me to sit on as he and his mother stood. For Vincentians, it is not uncommon to visit a single-parent household – correction, a single mother household – rather, it is the norm. However, the love and hopefulness that overflowed from Ms. Jones to her children, resulting in the cultivation of a peaceful and hospitable home– that same home, mind you, with no furniture, beeping smoke alarms, broken television, sunken beds, and risked the disconnection of all utilities — this was different.

As Vincentians, we encounter numerous poor families throughout the year. We provide them with utility assistance, furniture vouchers, rent assistance, bags of food, and some toys for the kids. We enter their homes, more often than not sit on the floor and fill out the necessary paperwork to ensure our Neighbors get the help they need. “Sign here,” we say, as we pull out a pen. We never leave the parish without at least a couple of pens. We see ourselves as first responders, and understand that the assistance we provide today may only get them by for the next month or two. But we have a rule – we only help a Neighbor once per year. Our Neighbors know this, too. Twelve and a half months from now we may get to see their faces again. Indeed, our encounter with our Neighbors in Need is a type of Incarnation as we enter into their messy reality from seemingly another place– moving into the space of not only their homes, but their entire worlds as we are caught up in their poverty, stale air, noise, and, usually, the hopelessness that accompanies living in such difficult circumstances. 

This January visit was different. It smelled the same, looked the same, we signed the same paperwork with the same Bic pens as every other time. But somehow, we were not the invaders; they were. We were not the ones making the Incarnation present to them– saving them from their poverty, even for a moment in time; they were making His Presence known to us and saving us from our poverty. On this occasion, we were more like the Magi bringing gifts of new beds and utility assistance to the King of kings laying humbly and happily in the feeding trough for animals in a dimly lit, musty cave. In Ms. Jones’s peace, love and hospitality, and in her son’s eagerness to obey his mother and serve us, we were made more aware of the presence of Christ in those we sought to serve, than on visits in the past.

St. Augustine tells us, “We have found the genuine Poor Man, we have found Him to be kind and humble, not trusting in Himself, truly poor, a member of the poor man who became poor for our sake, though He was rich.” (Sermon 14.9) “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). See how poor He is: “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). St. Augustine goes on, “He is conceived in a woman’s virginal womb, He is enclosed in His mother’s belly. What poverty! He is born in a mean lodging, wrapped in baby clothes and laid in a manger; He becomes fodder for poor beasts. And the Lord of heaven and earth, Creator of angels, Maker and Founder of all things visible and invisible, sucks, cries, is reared, grows, puts up with being his age, conceals his ageless majesty, later on is arrested, scorned, scourged, mocked, spat at, slapped, crowned with thorns, hung on a tree, pierced with a lance. What poverty!” (Sermon 14.9).

During this home visit, it became apparent to me that as Vincentians, we are Neighbors in Need, too! We are in need of a continual reminder of Christ’s vulnerability, humility, and hospitality. It is He who comes to us with an assistance request, bearing to us, once again, His Kingship precisely in His poverty. It is He who is inviting us to share in His life more intimately as we are welcomed into the worlds of our Neighbors. We provide assistance for a month or two, but through His poor, Life is breathed into our weary souls. 

And so, in our encounters with our Neighbors in Need, we enter into a Eucharistic dialogue. As we care for our Neighbors with our love in action we express to them in loving self-gift, “take and eat, for the Lord your God has loved you into being and it is His very Life that sustains your life even now.” And our Neighbors respond with pierced sides, hands and feet, in loving self-gift: “this is my body, given up for you” (Luke 22:19). For, as the Body of Christ, we are His hands and feet in the world continuing His mission to call all things to Himself (1 Cor 15:28), that all might be one in Him (Jn 17:21). Until then, each encounter with our Neighbor, that is with another made vulnerable whether economically, emotionally, psychologically or physically, gives us the opportunity to encounter our own need and enter into the Eucharistic dynamics of loving self-gift. In so doing, Augustine teaches us, we come “to be in the structure of Christ’s Body,” and move one step closer to that eternal moment when “there shall be one Christ loving Himself. For, when the members love each other, the body loves itself” (Sermon 10.3 On the First Epistle of John). 

Your Sister in Christ,

Vanessa

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Michael Belongie
Michael Belongie
2 years ago

As I ponder your testimony in elegant word craft, Vanessa, your generous service and its gifts are
apparent in serving and receiving.
The Christ, alpha and omega, blesses and
Serves the least and most dear to
His heart.

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