I was raised by a mother who was deeply religious, a devout Irish-Catholic immigrant who came to the United States from the west coast of Ireland (County Galway) when she was a young woman. My mother's life was filled with turmoil and suffering. Leaving the land of her birth, finding limited economic opportunity in her new homeland (she cleaned people's houses and took care of their kids), married to a mentally ill husband (who was institutionalized for most of his life), the constant challenges of raising four kids in poverty, in a tough and sometimes-dangerous neighborhood (South Boston of the '70s and '80s). My mother also had a series of illnesses -- she ultimately died far too young from kidney cancer.
What none of the "facts" above can ever communicate was how funny and hopeful my mother always was. She had a crazy optimism that all of her kids have, and it's something I feel every day. It's the legacy she gave me: one that only deepens with experience.
I remember when I was a boy and she sought an annulment, a kind of church-sanctioned separation, of her marriage. My dad had been institutionalized for a decade, with schizophrenia, and my mother was working hard to take care of him and raise a family, but she also (I suppose) wanted to explore the possibility of having another relationship. A black-clothed old priest would come into our apartment with a black bag filled with black books and plop himself down at our kitchen table and grill my mother like a police detective. He'd try to talk her out of doing what she wanted, to shame her in his way, to make sure she understood that the church wanted her to remain in her marriage (and suffer) no matter what. These conversations sometimes become loud and impassioned. I didn't know what they were about then.
I lost a lot of respect for the Catholic church then (and at other times too), but my mother never lost her faith. "The church" can be controlling and shaming in a way my mother never was. People are invariably better than the "doctrines and dogmas" of any particular faith.
We inhabit a world filled with constant sorrows, yet we have the capacity to find hope and to give hope, to get help and to give help. This is "true Christianity" for me: an active, hopeful engagement with the messiness and suffering of the world. My mom was always engaged in just that way. And yes, it's far from easy -- compassion and caring are the hardest things in life.
Matthew 25 connects me to my mother, my family, and the better angels within me. While Matthew 25 offers me the meaning of Christmas, I also know there are versions of Matthew 25 in all faiths: Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and beyond. The passage envisions "Judgement Day." Here's one translation I like:
“When Jesus comes in his glory . . . All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another.
Then Jesus will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
[Here, "the righteous" explain that they can't recall doing these things for Jesus. They question him about exactly when they "fed" him, when they "invited him in" as a stranger, etc.]
“Jesus replied, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did also for me.’
Now I'm no Biblical scholar, but the clear implication of Matthew 25 is that those who suffer are the equivalent of Jesus. When we see "the least of these brothers and sisters" as somehow less worthy than we are, we are wrong and we risk what happens to those on Jesus's left: he calls them out for wickedness, for caring more about their money, their possessions, their comfort, and themselves and for not caring enough to help "the least of these.". Those who Jesus celebrates fed the hungry, helped the sick, welcomed in the stranger. The others are condemned.
How do we bring the vision of Matthew 25 to life? I suppose it starts with seeing those who suffer as possible versions of ourselves, because they are. We always have a choice: we can walk past those who suffer on the street or in the hallways of our workplaces as if they were inanimate objects in the landscape. It starts with actually opening your eyes and your heart to recognize the suffering around you. It's there, whether you choose to see it or not, no matter how "uncomfortable" it makes you feel. Once you recognize the shared humanity of those in need, maybe you can take the next step of reaching out to offer help.
And yes, empathy is hard, caring is tough, we are all so busy, we have a lot on our to-do lists, we have places to go and people to see. I get it. Priorities. I can't tell you how to live, but maybe you will suffer too, and will want help or benefit from God's grace (which is within all of us and available for us to share). Creating a community where those in need get help can be good for YOU as well as "the least of these" (who can include you, your family, and your friends). When we get help, there's an impulse to give help. There is choice here in what you see and what you do, but don't ever believe there's no day of reckoning, as Matthew 25 envisions. Empathy is a risk, as is compassion, but living in a world without empathy amd compassion is far riskier still. You're either "on your own" or part of a community, and it's up to you to model the world you want.
What do you think?