the first line and last line of any poem Where
the poem begins and ends?
Like the poem to which the famous Irish poet and Nobel Prize winner
Seamus Heaney refers, the life of Jesus does not begin and end with
the first and last line of the Gospels. Not bound now by physical
limitations, he continues to live among us in varied and vivid ways.
How do we experience Jesus today?
While he still surprises, our faith tells us that Jesus continues
doing through human beings what he did in his earthly life. He thought
these actions important enough to have a key place in Matthewís
account of the final judgment: Then the king will say to those
on his right, ĎCome, you who are blessed by 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,
a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and
you cared for me, in prison and you visited meí (25:34-36).
We are so accustomed to thinking of these directives as things
that we should do that we rarely think of the other side of the
coin: how weíve been the recipients.
Most folks would agree itís harder to be on the receiving end,
easier to do the feeding, clothing and welcoming ourselves. But
only people who have actually been hungry or thirsty know how to
give food and drink reverently. Only those who have been desperately
sick or lonely can appreciate the welcome touch or the reassuring
sound of a visitorís voice.
We cannot do unto others what we have not first experienced ourselves.
If we have no experiential base for these kindnesses, how will we
recognize our opportunities to do them? If we are preoccupied with
our own pain, it is difficult to reach out to anyone. So it is helpful
to reflect on how Christ has come through the people who have done
us these kindnesses.
Turn the you of the Gospel passage around, thinking
of you as Jesus, not ourselves. After each personal
remembrance comes a question. This is how it happened in the authorís
life, but how has it happened in yours? How has Jesus served your
needs through another person? The unwritten answer to that question
thus becomes the most crucial part of this reflection.
When I Was Hungry, You Gave Me Food
Being the cook most of the time makes me especially grateful for
othersí cooking. Many years ago a friend from college met my flight
at the Orange County Airport, drove to Laguna Beach and produced
a cooler to celebrate a birthday, including chocolate-dipped strawberries!
The mother of five children, she has honed her knack for finding
the perfect food to fit the feast.
A kind host once made me breakfast, simply because he knew I did
it so often for others. I ate my cereal and drank my coffee like
royalty that day.
Most memorable meals nourish the spirit as well as the body. At
Thanksgiving, Christmas or birthday banquets, the stories that circulate
the table are just as important as the dishes passed around it.
We cherish times when food for the journey came in two
ways: We left the table strengthened not only by calories, but also
Beauty, too, can feed the spirit. When we are exhausted or depressed,
the sight of a lovely lake, flowering meadow or towering tree can
lift the spirits. Who can deny that Christ gives the burst of energy
that ensues, the spark we so desperately need?
When you were hungry, who fed you?
When I Was Thirsty, You Gave Me Drink
Sometimes we can thirst for affirmation as much as for water.
At times in our lives when we are shaky or insecure, Christ comes
in the guise of a compliment, the security of a friendship.
After drafting the first chapters of what would eventually become
my book Hidden Women of the Gospels, I was filled with hope,
but I was also uncertain. Could an approach to the New Testament
that was so different, so geared to women ever be accepted?
With trepidation I showed the manuscript to my spiritual director.
I shall always remember his quick response: Itís magnificent.
He probably exaggerated, but his words gave me the grace to continue.
On the strength of such assurance, we can walk a dry and dusty path.
Those who long for family are sometimes rewarded with the gift
of children or another relationship. The births of my children answered
a long thirst, nine months of anticipation and worry. Each child
arriving unique, given in total trust, growing and blossomingóno
wonder we celebrate each one with champagne!
So too, a lonely person sometimes finds an unexpected intimacy.
Christ comes through a person who is the answer to prayer, the rain
When you were thirsty, who gave you a drink?
When I Was a Stranger, You Took Me Into
We owe a great debt to those who sheltered us in childhood. Letís
start with our parents, who brought us as infants into their lives,
probably not dreaming how much expense, disruption and worry we
would cause. Letís look too at the wider circle of friends and relatives
who, in one way or another, welcomed us into their homes.
Later in life, we may take a spouse or dear friend into our home,
becoming for the other the person of Christ. Colleagues welcome
us to new work situations; neighbors help us feel at home in a new
The first few times I went to a nearby retreat house, I felt insecure
about the routines, uncomfortable in the silences. But every morning
as I bumbled to the coffeepot, one outgoing, elderly Jesuit would
see me coming. Disregarding the signs about silence, heíd bellow
across the dining room, Sweetheart! Everyone would grin,
Iíd hug him and the day would start well. In unfamiliar surroundings,
he put me at ease.
Who welcomed you when you felt like a stranger?
When I Was Naked, You Clothed Me
Clothing has always had spiritual significance, from the wedding
garment of Isaiah 61:10 to the white gown of Baptism. But itís hard
to understand the symbolism in Scripture or sacrament unless we
have first been clothed on the most natural plane.
One of the most powerful scenes in the movie Romero occurs
after the archbishop has had a brutal encounter with the military
regime. He emerges from a violent scene naked to the waist; when
his people hang his stole around his neck, they are vesting him
with more than cloth. They are restoring the dignity of his priesthood.
Those who criticize consumerism are right to remind us of our
obligations to the poor. But sometimes retail therapy
can boost a sagging spirit or prepare for a special event. I donít
know if better-behavior-when-well-dressed is gender-related. But
I suspect a new shirt sometimes prompts more graciousness and tolerance
than a homily does.
You go, girl! is a frequent refrain from the dressing
room when my daughters and I try on clothes. They encourage me to
break stodgy molds, try new colors and styles. From the maternal
perspective, I delight in their slender young figures, and with
absolutely no bias, think they look beautiful in almost everything.
In some hotel room of the future, Iíll be dressing to give a talk.
As I pull the suit or the blouse out of my suitcase, Iíll return
mentally to a dressing room with my daughters. The joy of that shopping
spree will spill over as I look in the mirror, and later stand at
the podium. The clothing is metaphor for the gifts of respect and
confidence we give each other.
Who has clothed you in beauty or honor?
When I Was Sick, You Came to My Help
When we are sick, we are vulnerable. We surrender our usual control
and land (with some grumpiness) in the care of others. While caring
for the sick is surely a work of mercy, being sick is a strain on
anyoneís good humor. Whether itís the severe pain of serious illness
or the discombobulation of the flu, it unravels our independence
and forces us to rely on the kindness of others.
A tonsillectomy at age 29 is no picnic. No doctor misleads a patient
at that advanced age with the cheery encouragement, Kids bounce
right back! But chronic infections made surgery my only recourse.
I remember waking in a hospital bed with a killer sore throat, late
at night. My husband sat in a metal folding chair beside me, sound
asleep, still holding my hand. The face of Christ bends over the
After one of our sons had surgery several days before Christmas,
we were warned that he couldnít come into contact with anyone else
who was ill. So we were distraught when his brother came down with
Yet on Christmas Eve, his pediatrician left his own family and
came to the office to administer penicillin. When we thanked him
for his generosity, he demurred, Canít have a little guy sickóor
Who helped when you were ill?
When I Was in Prison, You Visited
Jail ministry deserves our utmost respect. Many of us wonder if
weíd ever be able to do it, and admire those who regularly enter
the cold world of the penal institution.
Those ministers bring the warmth of Christís care, the balm of
his forgiveness to individuals who would otherwise never receive
it. But what of those on the inside?
If we have never been incarcerated, weíll need to think more broadly
about this one. But even those without prison records know the misery
of being caged in depression, pessimism, addiction or self-doubt.
Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) has been for many people the key in
the lock; the fidelity of an A.A. sponsor who intervenes during
a 3 a.m. crisis exemplifies the wounded healer.
Sometimes when caught up in anxiety or stress, I have been rescued
by friends. The laughing voice that invites me to lunch, the jokes
that keep me grounded, the casual comment or the serious conversationóall
can restore perspective. Agonizing once about giving a retreat,
I was grateful to a friend who reminded me, Itís not our work.
When we are sunk in despair, itís almost impossible to free ourselves.
Again we rely on the compassion and competence of Christ in other
Who has visited you when you felt imprisoned?
Following Christís Example
Searching our own experience for the traces of Christís fingerprints,
we may find uncountable blessings. We see that Jesusí incarnation
did not occur only once in Bethlehem, but continues right here,
C. S. Lewis describes this reality when he addresses God: So
it was you all along. Everyone I ever loved, it was you. Everything
decent or fine that ever happened to me, everything that made me
reach out and try to be better, it was you all along.
When Christ in many faces has helped us so often, how can we turn
from him in need? His style teaches us how to go and do likewise.