For You – Who Is Jesus? Who Are the Poor?
Two questions for anyone wishing to follow Christ the Evangelizer of the Poor – Who Is Jesus? Who Are the Poor?
Fr. John Prager of the Eastern Province Jesus is found amidst the poor
When Christ invites us to follow him, he does it from the poor. And from that place among the poor we have to answer: Who is Jesus? Who are the poor? How do we relate with them? This is the backbone of Vincentian Christology. Let me offer three clarifications:
The poor have value in themselves
We do not go to the poor because Jesus is present there, We go to the poor because they are our suffering brothers and sisters. They are the priority in the Kingdom of God. I tend to the poor because of their personal dignity. They are the subjects of their own lives, not the recipients of pity and handouts.
Christ calls us to serve the poor, not just the good poor
We sometimes speak about being evangelized by the poor. I think we misunderstand the phrase. We are talking about the good poor, those that go to church, live a moral life, share from their meager means. We cannot limit our service by asking if people are worthy or not. Even evildoers evangelize us. They call us to love the unloveable. They put us in contact with our own sinfulness and weakness and call us to compassion.
The presence of Christ is sacramental
St. Vincent speaks about encountering Christ in the poor. Rarely does he talk about seeing Christ in the poor. This is because the presence of Christ is sacramental, not physical. Speaking about seeing Christ in the poor causes confusion because it is a poetic form of speaking, but it does not correspond to experience. If you literally see Christ in the poor you are either a great mystic (and there are not many of those) or you need professional help. Speaking about Christ in the poor creates false expectations and fantasy. Some expect to meet a person with a beard and a white tunic. It also has become a way to avoid the poor who offend our sensibilities. By supposedly seeing Christ we escape the need to see the poor.
The experience of Christ in the poor is sacramental. It is an experience of faith which tells me that in the encounter with the poor something more is happening. This is not a self-evident truth. It is a faith reflection about the encounter with the poor. Frequently we only become aware of the presence of Christ after the encounter with the poor. The question of both the just and the unjust in Matthew 25 should give us pause: Lord, when did we see you with hunger, with thirst, without clothes or in jail, etc? It’s not a question of seeing Christ, but rather finding his presence.
The Evangelizer of the poor
There were Christological ideas that Vincent did not take from theology books, but rather from his own missionary experience. For the saint, Jesus was the evangelizer of the poor. He told the missionaries of his Congregation:
If we asked Our Lord, What have you come to do on earth?
-Take care of the poor
-Take care of the poor
Vincent understood that Jesus was the missionary of the Father who has come to announce the Good News of the Kingdom of God. To announce that the Kingdom of God is at hand and that this Kingdom is for the poor. The salvation which Christ announced is not only redemption from sin. It is liberation from sin and all that oppresses humanity. So the ministry of the Lord is understood as the proclamation of the Kingdom by word and deed. Evangelization is not only teaching doctrines and preaching sermons. It a response to the bad news that the poor suffer every day. Jesus seeks the way to overcome evil in the experience of the people. When he meets the sick, he heals them; when he encounters the hungry, he gives them food; with sinners, he pardons them
Something fundamental in Jesus’ evangelization is the encounter with the other. He approaches as a brother in order to understand the person’s pain. His response is always a charitable action/ This love is not expressed by giving things. His love is manifested by his closeness. He can touch the sick, the sinners and the weak because he is capable of entering their lives with all that that implies: listening, compassion, going out of himself to meet the other. That is why his presence is always good news. It is always the realization of the Kingdom coming to be.
A practical Christology
It is interesting that St. Vincent begins the chapters of the Common Rules of the Congregation of the Mission with examples from the life of Jesus. Jesus did this, we will do the same, he explains time and time again. He points out the characteristics of the missionary Christ: simplicity, humility, meekness, mortification, apostolic zeal. These are the virtues of Jesus, the evangelizer of the poor.
He does something similar with the other Vincentian foundations: the Daughters of Charity and the Confraternities of Charity. He always brings his Christological reflection to practice. Vincent was not a theology professor. His reflections came from the service of the poor and they led him back to the poor. I believe he offered a way of looking at Jesus to help others in the service of the poor. I think he does the same for us.
Questions for Dialogue:
- Who do you say Jesus is and who are the poor?
- Are there elements in St. Vincent’s teaching that might be helpful in your concern for the poor??
- Can Vincent’s vision say something today?