About thirty years ago a U.S. Marine named Jim was given leave for ten days, and he was inspired to go to India in hopes of meeting and assisting Mother Teresa. When he arrived in Calcutta after a flight of almost 8000 miles, Jim was shocked and overwhelmed by the thick, humid haze greeting his eyes and covering the narrow, garbage-filled streets. To Jim’s great disappointment, the Indian nun who answered the door told him Mother Teresa was away in Rome. Having nothing better to do, Jim offered to stay and help for the next week, and Sister told him, “There are three ways you can help: clean the house, cook, or care for the dying.” Jim couldn’t cook, and he was afraid to tend dying persons, so he kept himself busy cleaning, while staying in a tiny, noisy room near the street.
Jim planned on taking time off to explore the city, but that morning the Sisters asked him if he could answer the door that day. Jim reluctantly agreed, but to his amazement and delight, the first time the doorbell rang, it turned out to be Mother Teresa herself. In her familiar Albanian accent, the famous nun told him, “Come with me—we have work to do,” and she walked briskly through the slums to a small bridge. The stench was overwhelming; Mother Teresa seemed unaffected by it, but Jim was almost retching. Sprawled on the ground below the bridge was a poor elderly man lying in filth, covered with flies drawn to his many wounds. “Take him” Mother Teresa commanded. Jim pulled his sleeves down over his hands so as not to touch the man directly, picked him up, and carried him back to the house of the Missionaries of Charity. There, Mother Teresa instructed the Marine to do the last thing in the world he wanted to do: give the dying man a bath. Jim didn’t want to disappoint Mother Teresa, nor did he want the man’s final memory to be of an American who turned away from him in disgust, so he began cleaning the man in a tub—and something completely unexpected happened: Jim began enjoying the experience, finding great peace as he gently washed the man’s sores.
Then something even more amazing and miraculous occurred: as Jim carefully rocked the old man, letting him know he wasn’t alone, the person in his arms was literally transformed into Jesus Christ. Jim blinked and then closed his eyes, but upon opening them, it was still Jesus, with wounds in His hands and feet and a swollen, beaten Face. Mother Teresa evidently witnessed this as well, for she said to the Marine in a soft voice, “You saw Him, didn’t you?” Turning toward her, Jim nodded, but as he turned back, it was once again the dying old man, this time taking his final breaths, and Mother Teresa was gone. Later Jim tried to find her to discuss what had happened, but when he asked one of the sisters where she was, he was told, “Mother Teresa isn’t here; she’s still in Rome.” Jim insisted he saw her, so the nun smiled and said, “Ah, yes, I understand. She does that sometimes.” Later one of Mother Teresa’s closest followers, Sister Emmanuel, wrote of this event, saying, “Today, among the U.S. Marines, there is one man whose dream came true, and his life will never be the same. Under a small bridge in Calcutta, in the middle of the darkest human dereliction, he touched the Face of God” (Sister Emmanuel Maillard, Scandalous Mercy, quoted in Michael, May-July 2018, p. 22).
We don’t have to travel 8000 miles away, or assist a canonized saint known worldwide for her ministry to the poorest of the poor, in order to find people desperately in need of our compassion, in order to see Jesus Christ face-to-face, and in order to make a true difference. As Our Lord makes very clear in the Gospel of Matthew (25:31-46), He is all around us—in those persons who are hungry, homeless, sick, lonely, grieving, or suffering in any other manner. We often forget this truth, but it will be perfectly and unmistakably clear at the Last Judgment: whatever we do, or fail to do, for others, Jesus takes very personally. As God Himself promises in the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel (34:11-12, 15-17), He will separate the sheep from the goats, and as St. Paul teaches us (1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 28), at the end of time all things will be subject to the authority of Christ. This will be terrible news for those persons who’ve lived only for themselves, but glorious news for all who’ve shown their love for Jesus by the way they’ve treated their suffering brothers and sisters.
If we had to choose one word to describe the essence, or essential meaning, of our Gospel passage, that word would be “compassion,” which literally means “to suffer with.” Our solidarity or union with an afflicted person is what makes compassion quite different from empathy. If we empathize with someone, we feel sorry for that person’s suffering, but we don’t actually reach out or get involved with him or her; it’s as if we’re saying, “I wish this person wasn’t suffering, and I hope someone helps him or her, but it’s not my problem.” If we’re compassionate, however, our attitude is, “His suffering is my suffering; her problem is my problem—and I’m going to do something about it.” This approach to life is what Jesus asks and expects of us, and it’s the only one guaranteed to prepare and reserve for us a place of honor and glory in His Heavenly Kingdom.
On the last Sunday of the liturgical year, the Church honors Jesus as Christ the King. Unfortunately, most of the world in the early 21st century does not acknowledge His divine authority, and every day we see the terrible results: violence, crime, warfare, terrorism, injustice, religious persecution, broken homes, and many other evils too numerous to count. Despite all this suffering, however, we can each make a small but vitally important difference, simply by demonstrating our love for Jesus through the way we treat others in His Name. Our friendly smile, our willingness to spend time with a lonely person, our availability to do a favor for someone in need, our simple acts of compassion, and our prayers for those who suffer, are all reminders of the coming of God’s Kingdom, even as they help make it more present in the world here and now. It would have been easy for Jim, once he discovered Mother Teresa wasn’t in Calcutta, to get back on a plane and go home—but then he would have missed out on a miraculous blessing that changed his life. When we see suffering all around us, it would be easy for us to close our eyes to it and move on—but then we would forfeit a chance to serve Jesus Himself, while becoming richly blessed for doing so. We must not waste our God-given opportunities to prepare ourselves for judgment. Instead, we must act with love and compassion—for this is how we identify ourselves as loyal subjects of Christ the King.