“Look, we pray, upon the oblation of your Church and, recognizing the sacrificial Victim by whose death you willed to reconcile us to yourself, grant that we, who are nourished
by the Body and Blood of your Son and filled with his Holy Spirit, may become one body, one spirit in Christ.” —Eucharistic Prayer III
“Blessed are the grouchy, entitled, unappreciative, frustrating poor… For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The other day as I was driving to my job at a local homeless shelter I decided to start rewriting the Beatitudes—as you can see, I didn’t get very far. I do feel pretty confident that God doesn’t endorse grouchiness, or a lack of gratitude for the gifts we are given, or the ability to frustrate middle class people who ‘just want to help.’ But he does say, quite directly, in the person of Jesus standing on a mountain: “Blessed are the poor” (Lk 6:20). He didn’t say “Blessed are those who are rich, and worked hard for their money, and always say thanks, and never annoy other people. For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” No, Jesus, who knew full well that we can all be unappreciative and annoying, chose them himself: Blessed are the poor.
It’s easy to forget, in the midst of our familiar daily lives, that Jesus was a poor man who didn’t initially stand out in a crowd—until, of course, he started performing miracles, preaching, and raising people from the dead. Jesus hung out with the poor; he invited them to dinner; he walked with them, taught them; he called them his friends. He was born into a family of the working poor and his entire life—as well as his Death and Resurrection—was spent among people in poverty. He said it himself: “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me” (Mt 25:40). But why?
Six months ago, after finishing a degree in lay minstry, I chose a job that would allow me to spend my days in relationship with Christ in the poor. It seemed to make sense to me—I had been volunteering and interning for years at various homeless service agencies, and it has only been the Blessed Sacrament itself that has rivaled my experience of looking into the eyes of a poor mother or child, or a crowd of men eating breakfast, and seeing God.
At some point during my years in graduate school, I was sitting in a field education class and let it slip that I believe I was born to serve the poor. This startled me—was I making a commitment? What about all my other passions? But it had just become so clear to me that if I’m going to bask in the glorious experience of God’s love every day, which I do, then I also need to return this love where I know God exists so profoundly: “the least of these.”
I work with homeless mothers who live with their children at our shelter. I’m in charge of each of the moms, helping them work toward their self-sufficiency, while somehow keeping order in the dorm at the same time. I have never been in a position of such authority: I spend a lot of time disciplining and even kicking people out. My desire to encounter Christ in the poor was quickly startled by my daily experience at work—a job that reminds me every day that love is not always warm and fuzzy.
But when I think about the moms—the way they mistreat me, yell at me, curse at me, interrupt me, treat me like a machine meant to give them what they want, and how none of that changes how much I love them—this shows me a bit of how God probably looks at me. I’m a sinner; I’m broken; I make mistakes, I act entitled, I don’t appreciate everything that I’ve been given—and yet God loves me.
One of my favorite stories from my work so far has been with one of my more feisty moms. She knocked on my office door one evening, and when I opened it, she stood there yelling and screaming at me, with all her five kids around her. Her toddlers were hanging on both my hands trying to play, while her older kids ran up and down the halls and stared blankly at their mother as she screamed at me. While trying to be affectionate with the kids, I stood there still nodding and responding to her, and finally told her we would talk about it later when she could be more calm. I walked back into my wonderfully quiet office, but within a minute—KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK—she had returned. I took a deep breath, opened the door, and she yelled some more until we resolved the problem. Some time passes, I’m back in my office, enjoying silence, and KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK. Again, I open the door, and all this young, tired, beaten, frustrated woman did was look me right in the eye and say, “I’m sorry.”
The irony is that the source of her screaming was the fact that I was mandating her attendance in anger management!
The point of this story for me was that love isn’t made of warm and fuzzies—and neither is the Sermon on the Mount. Dostoyevsky said, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams” (The Brothers Karamazov). We don’t always feel it, and sometimes it is acutely clear to us that, as Aquinas writes, “love is an act of the will.”
So what does it mean to say we love God in the least among us, poor and otherwise? I don’t think it is enough to respond, “I love God, I’m a pretty good person, so I think I’m on my way to heaven.” God’s love for us is RADICAL, and thus we are called to radically love others, even when it is really hard. Once we really, really believe we are loved by someone, we WANT to radically love them in return, even when it’s uncomfortable.
In oblation, we pour ourselves out completely before God: “Here I am, Lord. Take me as I am.” We experience the miracle of the Eucharistic celebration and we proclaim our thanksgiving for Christ’s sacrifice.
After a long day at work, when I’m thinking about how many people are hurting, how much I can’t control and yet how much there is left to do, I remember: It is God who saves us through deep, radical, sacrificial love. All he asks is that we pour ourselves out to others in return. He gives us this model as He hangs on the cross, and he reminds us that this cross is really only the beginning.
I am no expert on pouring myself out, but I can try every day, in the face of God in the poor—even when she seems pretty grouchy.