Love Your Stranger As Yourself

Imagine you’ve discovered the cure for cancer. Just you. So of course every news agency is begging to meet with you. On a given Monday evening you agree to a sit-down with a journalist from the New York Times. She’s arranged to meet you at, say, the Boathouse restaurant in San Diego. Or maybe she’ll meet you at your apartment. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even matter who she is. She can be a well-mannered British intern, or instead a fidgety brunette, with thick-rimmed glasses, a gray blazer, and a tart attitude. What does matter is that whatever you say to her will be published everywhere. It will be printed and published to the ends of the earth, then frozen in the archives of the internet forever. She may ask you technical questions about your lab experiments, or she may grow poetic and pose questions like, “So what does this mean for us?” And all that you say will be heard by all. When you invite that one person over, you’re inviting the world.

If journalism is a modern phenomenon, where words with one person are published to the world, the exact opposite is true of Jesus: “Whatever you did to the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). Instead of one to many, now we have many to one. Whatever we say or do to anyone at all, we do to Christ.

In many of her letters, Bl. Teresa of Calcutta would remind her followers, “Remember the five fingers.” What she meant by this is explained well by a Dominican priest of the Irish province. In a memoir he recounts how on many occasions she asked him to hold his hand, and touching each finger one-by-one, she said, “You did it to me.” This was the secret of her whole spirituality. It’s a simple and sustainable model lifted from the pages of Scripture, and lived out by perhaps the greatest saint of our times. Mother Teresa knew that in loving the most unlovable in our midst – the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger – we love Christ himself.

This immediately strikes us in two ways: It’s beautiful. It also seems entirely too vague and mystical to apply practically in our lives. Why should I go outside of my circle of friends and family to love strange and difficult people? Why does Jesus want to make me uncomfortable?

Because that’s just how it is. Take the Church, for instance. The Church is a rather large and diverse Body of people, and if we were baptized into it, we must deal with it.

This is the classic teaching of the Mystical Body. It simply means that all those baptized into Christ are connected together in one common life. We asked, why is it that the way we treat anyone else is also the way we treat Christ? Because all of us Christians belong in some way to Christ now. We have received the Holy Spirit and now share life together “in” him. Even all unbaptized people are called to the Church and must be shown similar love. The sacrifices I make affect the lives of other people – ones I know and ones I will never meet in this life. The joys I have may be the fruit of my own good decision making, or they may be a gift won for me by the sacrifice of another brother or sister across the world. That’s why praying for each other never gets old, because we don’t do it to just see quick results or only to beg for miracles. We do it also to stay connected and help win grace and strength for each other. The whole image of the Church as a “body” is a grasping sort of analogy for a much greater thing – the reality of a network of grace connecting our lives together!

It may sound like an elaborate fairy tale, but it’s not. It’s grace. Ask anyone, and they can tell stories of how God connects our lives together. Here’s one from my own life: Years back my older brother was working a job in Virginia and got into a late-night car accident. He was cut off by a drunk driver at high speeds, and hit the median wall. All passengers walked away without injury. The next day our elderly neighbor in Ohio called my parents to say she’d been woken up in mid-sleep (about an hour before the accident), filled with a strong sense that she had to “pray for one of the Danaher boys.” So she did. And it worked. What does this mean? Nothing more than that God includes us in the lives of those around us. He could easily save us all alone, but He doesn’t want to. Instead, He wants us to pray for one another, to build one another up, to help each other grow.

So the saying remains true: In spending time with anyone at all – your same old parents, or brothers and sisters, or classmates, the poor or homeless, the depressed, the lonely, simply everyone – what you say to them, you say to more than just the whole world. You say it to Christ. And any good act He receives from us, He in turn can share its merit with others in need. In this life we won’t see where much of our prayers and good deeds go, or who they support and help. But we know that they all go to Christ, and for now that’s enough for us.

image: Nheyob / Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Dominicanathe Dominican student blog of the Province of St Joseph, and is reprinted here with kind permission. 

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Fr. Timothy Danaher is a priest at St. Patrick's Church in Philadelphia. He is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he studied Theology and American Literature. He entered the Order of Preachers in 2011, and has worked primarily in hospital and Hispanic ministries.

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