Three days a week, we Capuchin Franciscan friars crisscross Boston and Cambridge in a bright white van, seeking the face of Jesus on the streets. We look for him in the tired faces of people who sleep outdoors, on bus benches or cold sidewalks, swaddled in jackets, blankets, and cardboard. We look for him in the hungry faces of people who haven’t eaten in days. We look for him in the lonely faces of people whose joys and sorrows are unknown, whose fears and anxieties go unspoken. We bring coffee, hot cocoa, and sandwiches. We bring socks, hygiene items, and rosaries. Above all, we bring ourselves.
We are not trying to solve homelessness. We are not trying to cure mental illness or drug addictions or undo trauma. We are only seeking the face of Jesus and witnessing to the uncanny presence of grace among us.
Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, is an inspiration for our ministry among the homeless. In the April 1964 issue of The Catholic Worker newspaper, she wrote, “The mystery of the poor is this: That they are Jesus, and what you do for them you do for Him.” A syllogism shows the theological meaning of Day’s words. God abides in Jesus; the poor are Jesus; God abides in the poor.
I think of Day’s words as a midrash—that is to say, a commentary—on the Parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46). God is revealed as Jesus-the-poor. In our poor neighbors, Christ dwells with particular immediacy. There is a transparency: look through the poor, and you see Christ. The poor are many: all who are in want, the abused, the exploited, the unloved.
This swell of people—this is the Mystical Body of Christ. The life of God and the life of humanity have been taken into one another, and they can never be separated. We live in God, and God’s life dwells personally in each one of us. In the Mystical Body of Christ, as Day was fond of saying, “we are members one of another.” Therefore, the way we treat each other is the way we treat Christ. Most especially, the way we treat the poor is the way we treat Christ. It decides whether we accept or reject God’s life, and it decides whether we will receive or be denied God’s life.
What a scandalous insight! The first scandal of Day’s insight is that it brings Christ down from heaven, from the beyond of supernatural perfection, to the dust of the earth. The immanence of God is given a disturbing realism. Day identifies the Incarnation with the most inconvenient truths about human life, its pain and squalor. The odor of humanity exceeds the fragrance of divinity. The second scandal is that it will always be this way. To Day, the Mystical Body of Christ means the Incarnation is extended into human misery for all time. So long as there are poor people, there will be Jesus. What a fearful grace, that where the sin and suffering of peoples abides, Christ abides all the more! Then what of Jesus’ withering rebuke to the disciples: “The poor you will always have with you; but you will not always have me” (Matthew 26:11)? Here is the third scandal: our “having” Jesus, which is to say, the life of God, depends on our conduct toward the poor. Our decision for or against mercy determines whether we will have Jesus or not. Being compassionate to the poor gives us access to the life of the Mystical Body of Christ. Lest we seem to have sacralized poor people, reducing them to passive instruments of salvation, there is one more scandal: the infinite worth of human beings. People are more than their poverty. But the condition of poverty itself reveals that persons are more than their poverty, for the poor bear the marks of Jesus in their bodies (cf. Galatians 6:17). No person who bears the imago Christi is an insignificant person.
What does this mean for a Christ-centered faith that does justice? There are many ways to be Church—as an institution, as a sacrament, as a servant. The Church that we are is the embodiment of the way we have chosen. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker modeled a Church that looked like the Mystical Body of Christ they believed it was. Their decision reflected a deeply held faith. If God is revealed through Christ in the poor as the poor, then we must stand close to the poor to get close to Christ our life. But salvation is not merely being with the poor, as if material proximity is all that mattered. Salvation is the quality of our relationship with the poor, a being with the poor in spirit (cf. Matthew 5:3). We are never so close to Christ, in spirit, as when we feed the hungry, clothe the bare, shelter the homeless, tend the sick, and welcome the stranger with love. The Church becomes the Mystical Body of Christ when we unite in the fellowship of poverty, being poor with the poor. Keep in mind that poverty is not for its own sake, but for the sake of the holy communion that Christ accomplished in his person. Faith in the Mystical Body of Christ compels disciples to construct a community that conforms to the reality of this inescapable communion of God and humanity.
The spirituality of Day and the Catholic Worker is an awareness of the essential unity of spirit and body, of faith and works. You cannot be said to have faith in the saving power of the Mystical Body of Christ if you ignore the least of Christ’s friends on earth (see James 2:14-26). Do not turn away from the poor face of Jesus. Seek his face.