Rector’s reflection: Seeing the face of Christ

In the shadows next to the main door of the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral in West Philadelphia, there’s a sculpture that touched my heart when I first saw it at Diocesan Convention last November, and I’ve continued to think about it ever since.

It’s called Hungry and Thirsty Jesus, and it shows a life-size figure in bronze, seated on the ground, a beggar who has pulled a blanket around his shoulders and up over his head to stay warm, so his bearded face is barely visible. He has one hand extended as a plea to passers by, and that hand is the clue to his identity, for it bears a wound in the center of palm, the ugly mark of a nail.

The sculpture was installed last year, and it’s the work of Timothy Schmalz, a sculptor who describes the art he creates as ͞visual prayers.͟ This piece draws its inspiration from Matthew 25:35: ͞I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.͟

As faithful Christians we know we’re called in baptism to see the face of Christ in all those around us, from the rich and powerful to the homeless beggar on the street. We accept this as an ideal, and yet we fail at it again and again. How many of us would recognize Schmalz’s beggar as Jesus if he didn’t have the mark of that nail in his hand?

But once you do see that this is Jesus himself, the plate and cup on the ground beside him make their own kind of sense. This is no ordinary beggar’s plate, no ordinary cup. They’re the paten and chalice that hold bread and wine when we meet Jesus in the Eucharist. And yet, placed on the ground before this begging Jesus on the street, they’re empty—empty until some one of us reaches out to fill them.

The thing that moved me most about the sculpture when I saw it during Convention was the response of the people passing by on the sidewalk of 38th Street. Once they recognized the identity of this stranger, their expressions were both reverent and a little hesitant as they considered how to respond. Quite a few people dropped coins into that empty plate, as if the figure in bronze could use them. Seeing Jesus in need made us all want to do something to help.

Hungry and Thirsty Jesus is a thought-provoking image, and the important question it raises is this: Where do we see Christ in need, the face of Christ shining through flesh-and-blood human beings, and how should we respond?

Over the past year at Good Shepherd we’ve focused our outreach program on working with partners who support real human beings in need in our area and across the world, from the Keystone Opportunity Center in Souderton to St. James School in the Allegheny West neighborhood of Philadelphia to Good Shepherd Academy in Cameroon. You can read about our newest outreachpartner, the community of Bon Berger (French for Good Shepherd) in Haiti, in a separate article in this newsletter.

This year’s New Testament reading for Good Shepherd Sunday (April 22), our patronal feast, included these words from 1 John:

͞We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us– and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. (1 John 3:16-18)

Words to live by, especially for us who are children of the Good Shepherd.

May we recognize the face of Jesus in everyone we meet, may we see him especially in those in need here in our own area and around the world, and may we always respond with love.

In faith,