There is one among you whom you do not recognize.
I do not know about you, but I find troubling this sentence of John the Baptist. There is One among us whom we do not recognize. On this day, Gaudete (rejoice) Sunday, the priest wears pink vestments as an invitation to rejoice, in compliance with an order from God through the pen of St. Paul.
But how can we rejoice now that we learned of our inability to recognize Christ?
If we do not have a way of recognizing him, how can we possibly force a smile upon ourselves and go about our tasks as if everything were all right? This somber remark is directed at us by God who knows how we believe in the real presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. It is stated by God who knows how we participate with devotion at Holy Mass.
Troubled by this insistence, I could come up only with the following explanation: We cannot rejoice heartily in the Lord who is the joy of our souls, as our reading from the Prophet Isaiah (61:1-2, 10-11) suggests, unless we make the connection between the Eucharistic Bread and Wine and the flesh of Christ around us.
The Saints grasped and lived this connection: St. Ignatius of Antioch, martyred in Rome in the year 107, was very fond of the Eucharist. On his way to Rome he wrote: “Those who hold strange doctrines […] have no regard for love, no care for the widow, the orphan, none for the orphan and the oppressed […] because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior.”
Inspired by this thought, St. Theresa of Calcutta, would rise early every morning to attend Mass and be nourished by the flesh of Christ; she would, then, go through the streets of Calcutta attending, with loving care, to the pressing needs of the most destitute forms of Christ’s flesh in those dying on the sidewalks.
And here is a third example: St. Gianna Beretta Molla. She is that heroic mother who chose to forfeit her life (fibroma of the uterus) so that her fourth child could be born. By profession she was a surgeon and a pediatrician and… a daily communicant! She made this connection between the flesh of God in the Eucharist and her medical practice: “We, physicians are like priests: we touch Christ through our patients. Christ lives in every suffering person.”
This connection has to be constant, not only in church before the Tabernacle, during Mass, but around the clock, 24/7/365. This connection is why we need to celebrate Christmas every year and do the best job we can in celebrating it properly.
Christmas marks a fact which should touch us so forcefully that we would never be able to recover from the joyous jolt that it is supposed to give us. It is God who, out of love, chooses to assume our human flesh in its most realistic, humbling, embarrassing shapes, forms, conditions and limits.
This is the connection that we must make before we can rejoice heartily in the Lord; before we can give purpose to our life and use the time allotted us by God to care for His flesh. At the end of our life, we will not be judged on how much time we spent before the Blessed Sacrament, on the quality of our devotional life, on the number of prayers that we might have said; but on how well we would have recognized the One hidden among us and attended to the needs of His flesh.
Reading the lives of the saints, invariably, there is a significant turning point. It is the point when the saints discover Christ’s love for them in spite of their miseries and sins. It is the time when the hesitations, the flaws, the imperfections, the messiness of their flesh do not keep Christ away from the saints but, rather, seem to attract him who is felt closer than ever before.
Notice how St. Paul (1 Thes 5:16-24) puts together two orders that come from God: to rejoice always and to pray without ceasing. Prayer, then, is not necessarily what we commonly intend it to be such as saying prayers by rote, reciting something with our lips but, rather, an awareness of the presence of God even in the darkest, most humbling conditions of our human flesh.
It would be this connection between the Eucharist as nourishment for our being (its flesh included) that would give us reason to rejoice always and would enable us to recognize Christ’s flesh all around us. We could rejoice always because we would be praying without ceasing, i.e., we would be always aware that God is “comfortable” in His perfect closeness to our imperfect flesh.
There are three steps to reach this point.
Here is the first one: to rejoice because we see constant evidence of Christ’s presence in the miseries of our flesh and in his care for it.
The second step is one of detachment for all that causes anxieties and worries which would make it impossible for us to sustain genuine rejoicing for a prolonged time. In order to rejoice always, we would have to be convinced, at gut level, that the Father loves Christ’s flesh with infinite love and, consequently, that, since we are one with Christ, the Father has the same care for us, too; care such that we could not possibly match even with the best human means at our disposal. Thus, we would surrender to the Father our whole self. Little by little, we would learn to be serene and unfazed; we wouldn’t feel the need to be self-conscious, or to draw attention upon ourselves—not even to defend or to justify ourselves whenever falsely accused. We would “delegate” all defense and justification to the Lord.
The third step to make our rejoicing and our praying continuous is clearly the one of recognizing the presence of Christ in the sorriest conditions of human flesh. The Prophet Isaiah mentions the poor, the brokenhearted, and also captives and prisoners. However, even our limited experience tells us that the list is actually much longer.
Wherever we might live, we can find plenty of flesh in these sorry, heart-wrenching conditions—and not just at Christmas time. The same can be said of the missions in distant lands. If we can take these three steps of recognizing and caring for the flesh of Christ among us, of rejoicing always and of praying without ceasing, for certainty, our joy will spill over into eternity at the endless wedding feast of the Lamb.