Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Who is a 'stranger'?

I was assigned a new 'client' - a person recently convicted of a crime and assigned to me - a probation officer.  As I stood in the doorway leading to the waiting room, I read out his name - "_______".  He looked up nervously, got up and came to me.  I didn't recognize him and the only thing I knew about him was that he was a felon, convicted of committing a serious crime - a sex crime.  A stranger?  Yes, and one that most of us wouldn't want to know any better!

Recently, I was walking down the main street in town and passed the doorway of a local business.  Piled in it was an assortment of blankets, a shopping cart filled with what looked like garbage and, huddled up against the door, an old woman, filthy with grime - apparently sleeping.  I didn't know her and continued on my way, saying a quick and nervous prayer for her.  After all I thought, she was no one to me - a stranger living hard but . . . not my responsibility, after all.  I mean, I didn't know her!

Jesus said, "When I was a stranger . . . you welcomed Me".  I can't imagine Jesus as a 'stranger'.  He has been in my life for so long (decades) and has stood by me, supporting, encouraging, and strengthening me during the hard times and celebrating with me the good.  It is too hard for me to try to imagine Jesus being a stranger.  Also, even when I first met Him He never treated me as a stranger but as an old friend, more so, a dear long-lost friend.

However, Jesus sometimes (especially after His resurrection) came to His friends as a stranger. 

When Mary Magdalene was searching for Jesus' body she came across various people - the soldiers assigned to guard the tomb, angels and also the Apostles.  However, she also ran into a 'stranger' who she thought either owned the Garden in which Jesus' body had been buried or who she thought might be the caretaker/gardener of the place.  She was desperate to find Jesus' body when this 'stranger' approached her.  The Gospel says "She saw Jesus standing there but did not recognize Him".  Jesus even spoke to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?  Who are you looking for?"  He not only appeared to be someone other than Himself but never indicated that He was anything but a stranger to her.  Her response, "Sir . . ." makes it clear that she didn't know Him.

Later He appeared to two disciples as they were traveling from Jerusalem.  St. Luke says, "Jesus Himself came up and walked by their side; but something prevented them from recognizing Him."  Later, He 'broke bread' with them and, Luke says, "And their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; but He vanished from their sight".  The two said, "Didn't our hearts burn within us as He opened to us the words of the prophets?!"  This just affirmed what they felt while with this 'stranger', who walked and spoke with them - he was the Christ!

Finally, He appeared to Peter and several of the other Apostles as they were fishing. St. John said, "It was light by now and there stood Jesus on the shore, though His disciples did not realize that it was Jesus".  He tells them to cast their net out to catch fish, calling them 'friends' as he did so - though He appeared to be a 'stranger'.  Following His directions, they do catch fish - a lot of them! - and St. John says to Peter after seeing this miracle (they had fished all night without catching even one!), "It is the Lord!"  St. Peter, apparently believing what John said, jumped into the sea and swam to shore.  At breakfast on the shore,  St. John made the observation that "None of the disciples was bold enough to ask, "Who are You?": they knew quite well it was the Lord".  The proof - besides the miracle of the fish?  Jesus spoke to them intimately, asking Peter "Do you love Me?" and also affirming St. John with the words, "If I want him to stay behind till I come, what does it matter to you (Peter)?  You are to follow Me."  It must have been disconcerting to the disciples to look at this man - looking so different than the Jesus they had walked with for the last 3 years - and realize that, despite appearances, HE WAS JESUS.

St. Francis had a similar experience.  Before he 'left the world' but after God had touched his heart (filling him with a great desire for spiritual things) he was riding his horse one day when, in the distance, he saw a leper approaching, with hand held out, begging for an alms.  Francis wheeled his horse around to race away but God stopped him and, overcoming his revulsion and fear, Francis went to the poor leper, got off his horse and not only gave him a generous alms but kissed the lepers hand - for the love of Christ.  Overcome with emotion, he leaped back onto his horse and rode away.  He describes this as a pivotal moment in his life and so, in gratitude a day or two later, sought out the leper to offer more help.  He found out from local residents that no leper lived in the area!  Francis was convinced thereafter that Christ had appeared to him, in the form of the poor leper, so as to transform his heart with love!

Francis said about poor 'strangers': "Whoever says anything evil to a poor man, insults Christ by it . . ."  Also, "When you see a poor man, brother, a mirror of the Lord . . ."  Once again, Francis encouraged us to 'welcome the stranger' for in him we can find the Christ.

Strangers?  Those people in the elevator with you.  Those waiting in line to buy groceries.  That person sitting alone on a park bench.  That woman in the church who no one talks to.  They are all the strangers that Jesus so powerfully identifies Himself with.  He said, "When I was a stranger you welcomed Me".  Welcoming means being friendly, putting the stranger at ease, trying to meet their needs, especially for human contact.  This is what Jesus meant and is the way He is with everyone.  This is how Jesus feels and treats us since, as a human, he learned that no one is really a stranger.  Everyone is a friend - a member of the family of God.  My new client was a stranger, as was the homeless lady.  I had another chance with my client but never saw the homeless lady again.  God give me grace, the next time, to be warm and welcoming to her as a human being, as a child of God, as Christ suffering.  Jesus help me to see You in everyone I met, especially the sad, lonely and forsaken.