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~ Seeing the Face of Christ ~

The previous Reflection, “Down to Earth,” ended with the notion and calling of seeing the face of Christ in the prisoners, the oppressed, the poor. More needs to the said about that, for when I speak of seeing Christ in the poor and social outcasts, I am not talking just about witnessing humility or a joyful contentment under adversarial circumstances. Joy and a love-with-life bubbly presentation can be seen in Christians, Moslems, Jews and atheists alike. It can be but isn’t necessarily evidence of spiritual attainment. It could be a result of personality or the kind of medication they are taking. So can the presentation of somberness. People in abundance of material wealth can certainly be filled with Christ’s Presence as much as they can be empty of it.

However, in a mystically spiritual way, being in the presence of an utterly poor and hungry person, or a prisoner or other social outcast, is an experience of the blatant and unmasked encounter of the human condition. That human condition is precisely what Christ penetrated, took upon Himself and is redeeming. “[He], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8, NIV).  “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16, NIV).

In the glitter of our shopping malls, in the academic dignity of our universities and courtrooms, in the pomp of ecclesiastic trappings in our religious institutions, in the professional dark suits and ties and demeanor in our government and corporate offices, we encounter masks. Some of us are impressed by these masks. Some of us are intimidated. Some perhaps awed by their aura of authority and power. Others perhaps amused like parents watching their children suit up in Halloween costumes and taking themselves seriously.

This is why, in “Down to Earth,” I echoed Thoreau’s observation that under all those various masks and masquerades, “Most people live lives of quiet desperation.” Most, not all, of course. There are people filled with the Holy Spirit who move among these milieus and must dress and conduct themselves accordingly. These corporate, government, religious and academic milieus need spiritual people working within them. So do the contractors who build our houses, install our plumbing, fix our roads and collect our trash. And they, too, dress and act accordingly to their profession.

In the environs of our prisons, however, and of the poor, living in squalor and hunger, of the suffering clothed in thin, undignified gowns in our hospitals, we see people stripped of facades, wearing no masks. The unmasked human condition, whether witnessed in the dead and wounded on battlefields, in our hospitals and psychiatric units, in the cardboard box villages of the homeless and despairing, tends to frighten us. Our sense of fear, discomfort and distress arises from an unconscious or conscious knowing that this is the reality of all of us as a people. Into that unmasked reality Christ chose to be born.

His birth scene would scare us, in a way. That’s why we mask that too. Our manger depictions include a clean, sanitized and well-dressed Mary and Joseph; fresh, clean hay and beautifully white swaddling clothes for a clean, glowing baby Jesus. Idyllic, almost romantic. His death scenes are more sanitized and masked, presenting a clean, beautiful but pitiful man whose only wounds are small holes where spikes pierced and a small slit where the spear ripped through.

Why did Jesus, the Incarnation of the Creator Himself, deliberately chose to be born dirt- poor and remain poor and homeless all His life? The reasons stretch way beyond the usual banter about His “setting an example of humility.” He emptied Himself of all divine grasping, of titles, status and masks. He became the poor, both in spirit and body.

The unmasked human condition scares many of us. Most of us. That’s because we are looking at ourselves. We can blur and distance the reflection by giving the poor some alms because “they are less fortunate and we are blessed,” doing a good deed or two, or putting on a spiritual mask of gratitude by saying, “But for the grace of God, there I go.” That saying sounds biblical, but it isn’t. Grace isn’t a matter of thanking God we are not like others. The praying Pharisee of whom Jesus spoke (in contrast to the poor guy in the back of the temple beating his breast in contrition) was doing that, and quite sincerely and gratefully we ought to note. The grace of Christ is that He became like us, and chose to live in the unmasked poverty of the human condition as it really is, to suffer through it, resurrect from the ashes of its death, and thereby drawing all of us into Himself.

That’s what I meant by seeing His face in the poor and outcasts, for their faces are unmasked reflections of who we really are and what our condition really is. And by the grace of God, I do go there, and greet Jesus there. Sometimes He is joyful, sometimes sad and hungry. But He is there, to be embraced and loved, and that is transcendent joy, to know Him in the poor, the imprisoned, the afflicted and addicted, the unmasked and naked, as we shall all be on that day of judgement, when Christ says to so many, “Go away, you never visited me in prison or in the ghetto...You never saw me or sought me in those places and people where I chose to live.”

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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