I once had a conversation with a young man whose deceased father I had known for years. Our topics ranged widely but there was a sense in me of having been in this conversation before. It was the father’s voice I was hearing, not so much in the content, but the in phrases the son used, his body language and even his off-beat sense of humor. Echoed through this son, the father was still present.
In three of the four gospels, Jesus touches on something similar. After impressing on the disciples who he is and what he stands for, he declares, “whoever receives you receives me.” Jesus is claiming that an interaction with one of his followers is also an interaction with him.
In a much more realist and encompassing way, Jesus lives in his followers; giving them hospitality is welcoming The Lord himself. He resides in his people not just as a memory but, through His Holy Spirit, as a living presence. Jesus doubles down when he singles out the invisible ones back in the crowd. “Giving a cup of cold water to a poor person, you’re giving it to Me.” Again, “meeting him or her is meeting me.”
Many of the great saints not only took these words to heart but gave them the flesh of action. Francis of Assisi, Vincent de Paul, John Vianney, Dorothy Day – all saw encounters with the poor as meetings with The Lord Jesus.
A Jesuit priest I know had worked with Mother Theresa. One evening he and the others accompanying her returned from a long day on the Calcutta streets, and all he could think of was collapsing into bed. On the way there he caught sight of a shadowy figure shuffling along the corridor, Mother Theresa, and decided to follow her. She headed toward the ward where the sisters attended the dying street people taken in that day. The memory of how she walked up to the bed of one of these was one he never lost. It was the way she approached him, reverently and almost with an awe. In his words, “it was as if she were going up to receive holy communion.” Mother Theresa was not missing that man for who he himself was, but she was also bending before the presence of the Lord Jesus.
The Jesuit remembered the scene as a shining visual of,” whoever receives you is receiving me. Giving that kind of respect, especially to someone who is poor, is respecting Me.”
In these days of pandemic and of challenge to claims of racial supremacy, what a high bar the Lord sets for us, his disciples. “In serving them, you’re serving and valuing Me.”