Mary Mother of God, Epiphany and Baptism of the Lord, Year C

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Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! (Is. 60:1)

Nine years ago, a St. Vincent’s Dining guest said to me that for her it would be Christmas if she had enough to eat on that day. I was taken aback at first by her statement as I did not expect a woman of wisdom coming from her experience of 84 years to reduce Christmas to something so material as food and to settle, more or less, for a consumers’ Christmas.

Later, though, I became aware of my lack of understanding that usually results from my lack of experience of the hardships others endure and which predisposes me to self-righteousness. I did not understand the elderly lady and was a bit jolted by what she had said since I have not really experienced the kind of hunger she had experienced, she being one of those senior citizens who have outlived the purchasing power of their social security payments and pensions so that they are not even enough to buy food. Putting myself in her shoes, repentant and reflecting on her statement, I did finally manage to see Christ in the food she wanted to have enough of and such food in Christ.

Indeed, I have no doubt now that Christ makes himself present in the food we need and this, seen in Christ, acquires a fuller sense. I am now convinced that it was not for nothing that the gospel of Luke narrates that the Virgin Mary laid her newborn son in manger and that it was in the manger that the shepherds found the infant. The manger, the trough, is what holds the feed or fodder for livestock. It seems quite clear to me, therefore, that we are being made to understand that food is Jesus’ other name.

And even if it is clearly being taught as well that the food that Christ is, the food that endures for eternal life and for which we should work, is so much more than just the food that perishes and satisfies only temporarily, this does not mean, of course, that we can be indifferent to those who need this temporal food. To supply both the temporal and spiritual wants of the poor, both to comfort the poor and to preach the gospel to them, are part of—according to the clarification St. Vincent gave to missionaries which conforms with his vision of the integral character of the liberation that Jesus brings to the poor—the responsibility of one who seeks to follow the Evangelizer of the Poor (cf. Father Maloney’s The Way of Vincent de Paul). In fact, participation in the Lord’s Supper precisely forbids indifference toward those in need and also the distinctions that drive a wedge between the members of the one body of Christ and make those who have nothing to feel ashamed (1 Cor. 11:17-34).

It must have great worth, this thing about attending to the poor in their temporal needs—about releasing here on earth those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of yoke, setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke, sharing our bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless, clothing the naked and not turning our backs on our own—for the Lord prefers it as the genuine fasting that is pleasing to him and makes use of it to, among other things, make our light break forth like the dawn and his glory to become our rear guard (Is. 58:6-10). These works of mercy make for an epiphany, that is, for God revealing himself to us and telling us, “Here I am!” Thus, the Lord lets his face shine upon us.

These works of mercy are important too because anyone doing them—anyone preaching the gospel “by words and by works,” to use St. Vincent’s vocabulary, assisting the poor and having them assisted in every way, by himself or by others—is likened to him who was, at his baptism, confirmed Son and Servant of the Lord God, the anointed by God with the power of the Holy Spirit to preach the good news to the poor, and becomes God’s child by adoption and a copartner in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. This Son and Servant announced the good news also by way of establishing justice on earth, opening the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf and curing many of their diseases and sufferings.

Yes, I see clearly that the elderly lady was right about the relationship between food and Christmas. Without her knowing it perhaps, she taught me the lesson that our longing for the heavenly and eschatological food does not allow us to fold our arms simply. To long for this food and to do nothing about the plight of the hungry and the thirsty is to make a lie of the Eucharist and to drink judgment on oneself.