The Human Encounter of Love and the Most Valuable Lesson in Life
Homily for the Requiem Mass for the Homeless
Readings: Lam 3:17-26; Ps 23; 2 Cor 5:1.6-10; Mt 25:31-46
A famous story is told of the patron of our city, St. Francis of Assisi, about his encounter with a leper shortly after his conversion. Up until relatively recently, of course, leprosy was the most dreaded of diseases. At the time of St. Francis, lepers were sequestered from society, and had to ring a bell to announce when they approached so others could avoid them. Francis was especially repulsed by lepers.
The story is told that one day while riding on his horse outside of town he encountered a leper with particularly loathsome sores, so much so that he was struck with horror. Nonetheless, something moved him to dismount and offer the man an alms; as the man stretched out his hand to receive it, Francis kissed him. From that day on he dedicated himself to visiting hospitals and serving the sick, sometimes giving even his own clothes as well as money to the poor. This encounter moved him down a path of conversion that would change the world forever.
Jesus in Hiding
As one Franciscan commentator put it, in that moment Francis found that “the object of his fear was not a monster, but a man.” This son of St. Francis gives us much food for thought from his reflection on this encounter. And he goes on:
After all, Francis never railed at the social conventions that separated lepers from non-lepers …. He never tried to break the system. He didn’t encourage lepers to assert their rights by throwing away the bell and walking into populated areas. He didn’t tell them they weren’t really lepers at all, that it was an insult for anyone to call them such. He asked no one else to put their life at risk, although he was perfectly willing to sacrifice his own. In other words, he gave none of the standard responses for which modern political activists are known.
And then he gets to the key lesson about what Francis did do for the lepers, and – by way of example – for the rest of us: “First of all, he recognized their humanity, not through words, but through actions. He embraced them. Kissed them. Looked them in the eye…. He acknowledged that these men and women were first and foremost children of God.”
“In that moment he found that the object of his fear was not a monster, but a man”; “he recognized their humanity.” This is where we find our Lord hiding, behind the humanity of those who are suffering, whom others find repulsive. Is not this what he tells us in the Gospel: “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me”? All saints and great moral heroes throughout history have understood this. We can begin with our own patron, the “poor man of Assisi”: he came from the well-to-do merchant class, had a lucrative and fun-loving future head of him, but instead embraced “lady poverty,” and in doing so, changed the world so drastically that we the feel effects down to our own time.
And then there was Louis IX, King of France, who would distribute food with his own hands to two hundred poor persons on all major holidays; he also daily entertained at his own table three poor elderly people, and afterwards ate what they left. In response to those who objected that this was derogatory to the majesty of a king, he said, citing precisely the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, which we just heard proclaimed: “I revere Christ in the poor, Christ who said, ‘Whatever you do unto the least of Mine, you do unto Me.’” And he was wont to add, “The poor prepare heaven for themselves by patience, but the rich by alms and reverence, whereby they love and venerate the poor as the members of Christ.”
Elizabeth of Hungary was of the royal class, but so loved the poor that she herself became poor. We have this testimony of her spiritual director:
She ordered that one of her castles should be converted into a hospital in which she gathered many of the weak and feeble …, and finally … sold her luxurious possessions and rich clothes for the sake of the poor. Twice a day, in the morning and in the evening, Elizabeth went to visit the sick. She personally cared for those who were particularly repulsive; …. Finally, when her husband died, she sought the highest perfection; filled with tears, she implored me to let her beg for alms from door to door.
The Encounter of Love
Such witnesses, from long ago and our own time as well, speak to us of the human encounter of love. This is the salve to sooth the spiritual wounds brought about by physical suffering – neglect, loneliness, abandonment – because it is what orients us toward God. And we can go much further back in history for this same lesson, for it was also the vision of the prophets of ancient Israel, even in their people’s most desperate of times. We hear this reflected in the passage from the Book of Lamentations that was proclaimed in the first reading.
Do we not hear the cry of our homeless brothers and sisters in this Lamentation: “My soul is deprived of peace, I have forgotten what happiness is; I tell myself my future is lost, all that I hoped for from the Lord. The thought of my homeless poverty is wormwood and gall; remembering it over and over leaves my soul downcast within me.” Even the very definition of “lamentation” in the Biblical sense, as given by one scholar, bespeaks their plight: “a spontaneous response to the presence of chaos, brokenness, suffering and death.”
The Book of Lamentations was written in one of the darkest periods of history of ancient Israel: the Babylonian captivity. Jerusalem was sacked, the Temple destroy, the people deported into exile, all that they held sacred was violated, all that had value and meaning, even their very identity, was taken from them. Lamentations is a lament over the destruction of Jerusalem; it had, then, a very deep spiritual significance, beyond the temporal consequences of their home city being destroyed and having to wander homeless in a new land. Their spiritual home was taken from them, too. Yet, even in the midst of such intense misery, the lamenter finds reason to hope: “The favors of the Lord are not exhausted, his mercies are not spent…. Good is the Lord to one who waits for him, to the soul that seeks him; it is good to hope in silence for the saving help of the Lord.”
The human encounter of love is the way that God manifests the sound reason for our hope: hope in Him, hope in deliverance from suffering. It is already a small but significant deliverance just that someone is simply paying attention, really cares, sees a fellow human being needing love and capable of loving, not a problem to be solved, looking them in the eye as did St. Francis and acknowledging first and foremost a child of God, a fellow child of God.
There is where God reveals Himself; but through the crisis of homelessness He reveals to us something more. Listen to the words of St. Paul in his Second Letter to the Corinthians: “We know that if our earthly dwelling, a tent, should be destroyed, we have a building from God, a dwelling not made with hands, eternal in heaven.” A tent is something that has made itself very familiar to us recently, even being the urban dwellers that we are. Think, though, about a tent: it is a temporary, makeshift dwelling; it signals impermanence and instability, and so is a reminder of how transitory life in this world is. But it is also the type of dwelling used by nomads, that is, people who are constantly on the move.
Those who live among us without a permanent home, then, provide us a powerful reminder that we a people on pilgrimage, that this is not our true home; we are in movement toward our final destiny, our permanent home which lies beyond this world. And so the reality of our brothers and sisters living among us without a permanent home serves as a sort of sacramental presence for us, in that they make this reality of our life in this world very real and present to us.
What, then, are we to do? Listen again to St. Paul: “Therefore, we aspire to please Him.” The most important thing, the only important thing, is to please God. And then he gives us a sobering reminder as to why: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.”
Which brings us back to Matthew 25: we will one day have to render an account for our lives in this world, and what will matter is not how much money we have in the bank, how many houses we own, how many exotic vacations we’ve taken, how famous we’ve become, how much power and prestige we’ve accumulated, but one thing, and one thing only: our response to human need. Notice the distinctive quality of those who are welcomed into the kingdom: they were uncalculating, they didn’t know they were doing this for the king. The ones on the left would have helped if they had known it was the king asking for help. We can easily imagine their protestations: “Oh, we didn’t know it was you,” meaning, “we thought it was someone unimportant.” These are the ones who give to get. But the ones on the right are different: they give to give, their response to human need is pure love, not self-interest.
Giving to give: that is how we find Christ hiding there, and that is how we will find him in heaven. He has a proclivity for hiding behind the simple and the humble. As another saint who loved the poor to the point of identifying with them, one of our own time – Mother Theresa of Calcutta – was fond of saying, these are the disguises our Lord uses to invite us to find him.
Hiding behind that which appears simple and humble: he does that on the street, and he does that on the altar. In a few moments, once again on this altar he will hide behind the appearances of a simple piece of bread and humble cup of wine when he gives us his Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist. The Eucharist that remains is kept in the tabernacle, that is, a tent. The favors of the Lord are not exhausted, for He remains present with us here in this life, He journeys with us to our permanent home in heaven.
It is good that we gather today, in this beautiful church, offering our worship with beautiful music and ceremony, to accompany our beloved deceased homeless on the way to heaven. Beauty is called for, for beauty has a power to heal, unite, and manifest the presence of God. And it dignifies our human condition: those who are suffering the consequences of homelessness, poverty and marginalization deserve nothing less.
The way to heaven is made possible through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, a sacrifice made present on the altar at every Mass. We in the ordained ministry are set aside to care for the presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist, but this is incomplete without you, who are dedicated to caring for the presence of Christ on the street. I therefore want to take this opportunity to thank all of you – our Catholic and other faith-based organizations, our government leaders, those in the non-profit and private sectors – to thank you for all that you do to bring the healing balm of loving presence to our brothers and sisters suffering on the streets.
Together, we can offer something beautiful to God, and beautiful for our beloved homeless, poor and downtrodden, who are not monsters to be ignored or problems to be solved, but first and foremost children of God, who give us the opportunity to show love and so learn the most valuable lesson of life: giving to give, without calculating the return, is the pathway to heaven, to true and lasting joy in this life, and forever in the life yet to come.
 Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. and Donald Attwater, edd, Butler’s Lives of the Saints, vol. IV (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, Inc., 1981) p. 23.
 Cornelius a Lapide, The Great Commentary of Cornelius a Lapide, The Holy Gospel According to Saint Matthew, Vol. II, Thomas W. Mossman, trans. (Fitzwilliam, NH: Loreto Publications, 2008) p. 498.
 Cited in the Roman Breviary, Office of Readings for the Memorial of St. Elizabeth of Portugal.
 Michael D. Guinan, O.F.M., “Lamentations,” The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer and Roland E. Murphy, edd. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1990) p. 559.