Mama Alda is a small woman not more than 4’ 6” tall and well under 100 pounds. Her grey hair is always pulled back in a somewhat frazzled knot. She showed up at our house yesterday. As Monica opened the door she shuffled in, her frail, wrinkled face smiling widely, exposing a few betel nut stained teeth.
Alda lives nearby in a small shack with not much of anything in terms of worldly goods. It’s a blockhouse that is better than some. But still, it has a dirt floor and a rusty corrugated iron roof that leaks. Inside, Alda’s bed is made of thin strips of bamboo with a worn-out mosquito net hanging above. Like most old Timorese women, Alda wears a lipa, which is a colorful cloth that is wrapped around the waist, along with a homemade shirt fastened with safety pins.
When Alda comes to our house, she comes bearing gifts. Usually a bunch of bananas or some ears of corn. She comes in, has a bowl of rice and vegetables, maybe some eggs or a cup of milk. Sometimes she has a health concern, sometimes not. Mama Alda only speaks Makassae, one of over 30 languages in Timor-Leste. Monica is better with Makassae than I am. Working in the clinic every day, she knows the words for basic health questions in several local languages in addition to the national language, Tetum. Even still, when Mama Alda comes over we don’t understand or say a whole lot; but it doesn’t matter. She sits, chats, smiles and laughs. We offer food; she eats.
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock…” says the risen Christ in the book of Revelation. “…If you hear my voice and open the door I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” Rev. 3:20
“Christ is hidden among us,” says Mama Alda by her presence with us as she sits there in a cheap Chinese chair eating her rice and eggs, smiling and drinking powdered milk.
Christ is hidden in that which is weak and powerless, fragile and vulnerable. Commenting on the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-46) Karl Barth puts it this way:
“But where is [Christ] hidden now? With God, at the right hand of the Father? In His Word and sacraments? In the mystery of His Spirit, which bloweth where it listeth? All this is true enough, but it is presupposed in this parable, and the further point is made, on which everything depends, that He is no less present, though hidden, in all who are now hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick and in prison.” (italics mine)
Why does everything depend on this? That’s a question to ponder.
If we don’t perceive Christ hidden “…in all who are now hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick and in prison,” then we’re unlikely to perceive Christ anywhere. This seems to be what Barth is getting at: “…no one can know [Christ] in His majesty, or honour and love Him as the Son of God, unless he shows concern for these least of His brethren.” I think about this when Mama Alda shows up. I think about it when patients line up at Clinic Immanuel and along with them dedicated Timorese staff who themselves struggle to get by. I think about when I read of refugees fleeing conflict and disaster or when I attend our weekly home worship visits with members of Immanuel church. Increasingly, I think about it when I read about Donald Trump’s new immigration policies or his “health care” proposals and whom they’ll affect. In Christ God is on a journey with us — especially with those on the margins, those living in poverty, sickness and misery.
What are the ethical implications of the incarnation and the cross? I used to think they were self-evident. If God has chosen to be revealed as a stranger, to be born weak and vulnerable, to take on human flesh and live “…not to be served but to serve” and to suffer and die as a criminal among criminals, to “…give his life as a ransom for many,” it follows that we ought to recognize with Barth that:
“Wherever in this present time…one of these is waiting for help (for food, drink, lodging, clothes, a visit, assistance), Jesus Himself is waiting. Wherever help is granted or denied, it is granted or denied to Jesus Himself. For these are the least of His brethren. They represent the world for which He died and rose again, with which He made Himself supremely one, and declared Himself in solidarity.” (italics mine)
Well put Professor Barth! But nowadays I don’t think this is primarily about ethics. It’s certainly not about people with capital acting on behalf of or speaking for the poor. Now I am convinced it’s more about God’s own journey in the world, which is a journey of solidarity with all of humanity, but especially with the poor. We can describe it as a journey of suffering love. It’s a suffering love because it cannot and does not “fix” every problem. What God promises and does however is practice presence, bestow dignity and give life. This is especially so for the poor and oppressed (see Luke 16:19-31). However, there are ethical implications for all of us.
Gustavo Gutierrez, a priest working in the slums of Lima, Peru talks about the ethical implications of the incarnation and cross as “Practicing God’s presence of justice in the world.” If God is a God of justice, we who believe in God must embody this justice too. It is a matter of ethics, but more profoundly a matter of spirituality and accompaniment. By reducing the distance between ourselves and those living on the margins, we find that the distance between God and ourselves has been (miraculously!) reduced as well. And for that reason I’m thankful that Mama Alda comes to visit us. I’m thankful to receive the gifts she brings and to share some of what we have. I may not understand much of what she says, but I do understand that when she speaks, echoes of the hidden Christ resound saying: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”