I used to live in the city, and would often stop at red lights where homeless persons sometimes aggregated, asking for help. (I can only imagine how now much their numbers will have multiplied today in view of the current economy). I always kept one-dollar bills folded up and at hand to give to them, and I gave to every person I saw. I know—I always knew—that some of them would use the money for things I didn’t want them to use it for, but that was fine: I was giving them a gift, not a bribe. A gift means there are no strings attached. Life is the gift that God has given us, and he lets us make of it what we will: we’re free to, as Richard Bach once wrote, “write lies, or nonsense, or to tear the pages.” So I always gave. And there was always that thought in the back of my mind: any one of these people could be Christ in disguise.
In fact, when one day the light changed before I could hand something to the man with the cardboard sign and I drove on, I couldn’t get him out of my mind. All I could hear were the words of St. Matthew: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me.”
I turned the car around and went back.
Was it Jesus I gave money to? God reveals himself to us in many ways—and, sometimes, in ways we miss, or almost miss. God is relentless in pursuing us. God is love and, as love, he wants us to know and recognize him, take pleasure and joy in his presence.
The Hebrew Bible shows us that God revealed himself to his chosen people slowly, over time. Throughout our lifetime, also slowly and sometimes in strange ways, God continues to reveal himself to us.
Today’s readings are all about God revealing himself in surprising places (and to surprising people). Philip was minding his own business when the angel told him to go out and address the Ethiopian traveling down the road. This was an important personage—essentially the head of the queen’s treasury department—and a lesser man than Philip might have been daunted. Seeing the traveler reading from Scripture, Philip went one further and challenged him as to whether or not he understood what he was reading, offering to explain the passage. Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter… “Who could this be?” demanded the Ethiopian. “Who is the prophet referring to?” Philip told him about Jesus, and the Ethiopian, overcome, requested baptism immediately. Would you expect God’s messenger to be someone who stops you on the road and asks you whether or not you know what you’re doing?
In the Gospel, it’s Jesus who is revealing who he is—and not just who he is, but who sent him. Most of the people surrounding Jesus accepted his authority: he was a rabbi, a teacher; he was a prophet; he was clearly a man of God. But now they’re looking at him with fresh eyes: he is not just a man of God, but he is God, God Incarnate, and he is promising eternal life. Would you expect God’s Son to be a man who looks just like everybody else?
God is constantly doing the unexpected, surprising us over and over again with his message of love and these promises of life. In graced moments, the presence of God shines crystal-clear in the midst of the world. In inviting us to be part of the community of faith, Christ draws in the whole world, even those (perhaps especially those) on whom the world has turned its back.
One of my favorite authors, C.S. Lewis, writes that “there are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” As God reveals himself to us, he is also constantly revealing himself in us. All of us.
The twentieth-century mystic Caryll Houselander says that “if we see everyone in our life as ‘another Christ,’ we shall treat everyone with the reverence and objectivity that must grow into love (…) once that is understood we can never again feel completely frustrated by anyone, or lose the serenity of our minds by nursing a grievance.”
God is constantly revealing himself and his love, not to people but through them. All we have to do is notice.
Jeannette de Beauvoir is a writer and editor with the digital department of Pauline Books & Media, working on projects as disparate as newsletters, book clubs, ebooks, and retreats that support the apostolate of the Daughters of St. Paul at http://www.pauline.org.