What does Jesus look like to you?
I’m going to share a story from Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who works with gang violence in Los Angeles:
“When I taught at Loyola High School in Los Angeles in the late ‘70s, after Sunday morning mass I’d grab a cup of coffee and sit in the living room of the second floor and read the LA Times. Peace, quiet, and feliz; it didn’t get better than that. One Sunday, I was sitting with my friend and Jesuit brother, Al Naucke. Both of us had our coffee and were silently turning the pages of the paper when the doorbell started to ring repeatedly. Initially, Al and I hid behind our papers, waiting it out. The doorbell rarely rang, but when it did, it was almost always some homeless person. Finally, Al, the way better man, quietly put down the paper. There was no annoyed sighing (though who would blame him?).
Some ten minutes later he returned, sat down, took a sip of coffee, and resumed his reading. After a few beats I asked, without lowering the paper, ‘Well?’
‘Well what?’ Al replied, not lowering his paper either.
‘Who was it?’
From behind the sports section he said, “Jesus, in his least recognizable form.’
His least recognizable form. And so too with the gang member, and the mother receiving welfare, and the heroin addict, and the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker. To practice the sacrament of sacred presence is to be Jesus, and to see Jesus. It’s all right in front of us, here and now.”
I might add a few faces that are maybe more familiar. The roommate who never washes his dishes, the college student walking home after a party at 3am, the group project partner or co-worker who never seems to show up to meetings, the cashier who takes your order every Thursday at Chick-fil-A, the Spanish-speaking woman who cleans the entire SPH building in the early morning hours.
The Face of Christ. El Rostro de Cristo.
How can you encounter the face of Christ, or be the face of Christ, if you don’t know the face of Christ yourself? This question nudged the back of my mind throughout my year in Ecuador – my year of being a volunteer representing this very name.
I used to have this image of God. This sacred, beautiful, divine image. He was clean, pure, radiant, perfect, quiet, and serene. I knew that He could always be found in certain places – Mass, adoration, confession, spiritual direction, the CSC community, Wednesday night dinners, retreats. So many resources and endless support, all at my fingertips. It was pretty straightforward in a sense. I knew that I could go to the chapel and He was there. Even if I did the ‘butt prayer’ and just sat there somewhat focused/distracted, He was there. It was quiet, it was peaceful, it was reverent. I mean, it was God, of course. And He was there.
Well, things were NOT so straightforward in Ecuador. The chapel in the neighborhood was only opened for daily Mass or Adoration. Nothing else. Daily Mass was only a few nights a week, and at the exact time when we ate dinner as a community (a requirement). And Adoration was only on Thursdays from 6-7pm. Sunday Mass (outside on a concrete soccer court) was a display of never-fully-functioning microphones, animals, crying babies, kids running around the court, and chaos at the time for communion. And it was never, ever, ever quiet. My room offered no haven from the heat or the booyah from bumping music, cows, dogs, and chickens. I felt lost. Where was God now? I certainly couldn’t ask the new Italian priest who spoke just as little Spanish as I did.
It was hard. Really, really, really hard. God was not in the places where I had surely/confidently known Him to be. Well, He technically was still there in those spaces, but in much more limited ways to me. So I knew He hadn’t disappeared completely from my days. Because that seemed downright paradoxical, being a part of a program with His name in it.
Well, the truth is, for a while, I just didn’t recognize Him.
As I struggled with adjusting my faith to the new lifestyle, the most basic ways of expressing my faith became challenging, even and especially daily prayer. But, I slowly (very slowly) began to encounter God in new ways. At first I didn’t even realize it. I began to encounter the sacred in the ordinary.
It was mind-blowing when it hit me. His most Sacred and Divine presence was manifested in the most ordinary of days, moments, and peoples. How? The mystery of the Incarnation suddenly became so real to me, so tangible that I could hug Him (literally).
God became man so that we could recognize Him and accompany Him through the joys and crosses of life. He was revealing Himself to me in such an ordinary way that it went right over my head. Kinda ironic, right? We have this idea of God, but we forget that God is so big and vast that He is above and beyond any and all of our ideas of Him.
I began to realize that my days were graced with His extraordinarily ordinary presence. As I accompanied my neighbors though their days, He accompanied me through my neighbors. Talking, laughing, crying, listening, hugging, playing, singing, suffering, cooking, walking, praying, sitting. It was all so ordinary, so simple, but oh so sacred. And it was together, with my Ecuadorian neighbors and with Christ. That the JOY that I found was from finding HIM.
There are so many stories I want to share from my year in Ecuador. I love to talk about it (clearly). But, the truth is, most of my stories are just so, well, ordinary.
I could tell you about the simple, joyful moments. Like the time I cooked my famous soup for Nico and Sarita because their mom was running errands; or when Grace and I got coco helado with Jhon and we sat around the table slurping coconut water from our straws; or when Oscar and I sat in hammocks for hours on a lazy Saturday just playing the guitar; or when we sat with Señora Ivon in her single room cane house and cooked a delicious meal of rice for lunch.
I could tell you about the tougher, heart-wrenching moments. Like time when 5-year-old Aileen curled up in my lap and cried because she accidentally did homework in pen instead of pencil and her mom was going to hit her when she got home; or when I caught 13-year-old Juan Pablo smoking marijuana in the after-school program’s bathroom; or when Señora Ivon’s 27-year-old son stole the little money that she had left for the week right in front of us, just to go buy more drugs.
Just like in Mass and adoration, God was there. Maybe at first glance you didn’t see Him. But He still is. The mother, the son, the friend, the daughter, the children. There and here. Then and now.
Accompanying. Sharing. Loving.
I think that’s what the Incarnation is. It doesn’t have to be anything extravagant. Just being friends with Jesus through the day-to-day of life.
But first, it takes encountering Him where you least expect it. In his least recognizable form