To many of those who had gathered for services at a Taylorsville, Utah Mormon church, the sight of Dave Musselman was unusual and unsettling.
His hair and beard overgrown, he sat on a bench wrapped in a blanket staring at his feet and mumbling to himself. When he walked in, many of the congregants turned their heads not wanting to make eye contact with him or engage him in any way. Though a few people welcomed him and even slipped some money into his hand when he wished them a “Happy Thanksgiving,” most treated him politely but with suspicion. In this well off suburb of Salt Lake City, most people had never seen a homeless person and were feeling conflicted between their desire to welcome the stranger and their instinct to protect themselves.
The level of tension rose dramatically in the congregation when the time for the sermon came and the homeless man got up from his seat and stood at the pulpit. Some of the men got up thinking they would need to escort him out. Instead they looked on in shock as Dave took off his wig, pulled off the fake beard that had been glued to his cheeks, cleared his voice and announced that he was their bishop.
Recalling the incident to the local newspaper, the bishop said, “It had a shock value that I did not anticipate. I really did not have any idea that the members of my ward would gasp as big as they did.”
One of the congregants told the same newspaper about her reaction when she learned it was her bishop, “I started feeling ashamed because I didn’t say hello to this man... He was dirty. He was crippled. He was old. He was mumbling to himself.”
During the sermon, the bishop explained to the congregation that his intention was not to embarrass or make them feel ashamed. Rather he wanted to call their attention to the presence of Christ in our midst in the most unlikely of circumstances and the most unlikely of people. Jesus is always near. Most likely he is hiding where we least expect to find Him.
The lesson that this congregation in Salt Lake City learned is the same lesson that we are reminded of throughout the Christmas season but especially on this feast of the Epiphany. Jesus Christ has come to live among us. Though we cannot see Him, He is still among us. However, as Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, He is hiding in the distressing disguise of the poor and needy.
The word “epiphany” means “revelation”. It describes what happens when a truth finally “dawns” on us. Suddenly our eyes are open to an idea or concept which previously made no sense to us. For instance, when the bishop took off his wig and fake beard, it was an epiphany to the congregation who he really was.
When Jesus was born, it was an epiphany of God’s love. It taught us how far He would go to show us His personal love for each of us. It revealed His willingness to share our human condition with all its poverty and weakness. It also revealed that this love is destined for all people whether it be the lowly shepherds huddling in the cold or the cultured and sophisticated Magi from the East. It is a love that is destined for all peoples of every nation. It is a love that especially goes out to the poorest and neediest among us.
Unfortunately, it is a love that is too often rejected. Jesus suffered rejection from the first years of His life when King Herod chose not to welcome Him but to kill Him. Jesus continues to suffer rejection and persecution whenever the hungry are denied food, the poor are denied decent wages and immigrants are denied a warm welcome. In His life, Jesus experienced hunger and poverty and lived the first years of His life as a refugee in Egypt. He told us that He identifies most closely with the needy in our midst and warned us that we would be judged on how we served them. If we call ourselves Christians, then we must be willing to recognize and adore Jesus who chooses to reveal Himself in ways that make us uncomfortable and which may even frighten us.
This is a challenging message. All of us have to admit that we have fallen short. Because we want to protect ourselves and our families, we have been too cautious when dealing with the needy. It could also be that we are influenced by prejudices that blame the poor for their adversity because we think that they are too lazy to find work. However, if just one time we take the risk of saying “hello” to a homeless person, shaking her hand or offering her some money, then we will see that she is a person just like us, a person with dreams and hopes but who has experienced more tragedies and difficulties than we can imagine.
We will make another surprising discovery as well. We will find love welling up in our hearts, love that we might not have found possible before. It will be a love that changes us because we will never again be able to experience comfort knowing that our brothers and sisters have no home. We will never again be able to enjoy a warm meal knowing that so many others are going hungry. Though this love will not allow us to rest, it will at the same time leave us with abiding peace because we have finally learned how to recognize Jesus, the Lord whom our hearts were created to seek out and adore.
On this feast of the Epiphany we celebrate a God whose love is revealed for all the world to see in the person of Jesus Christ. This love pours itself out in a special way for the poor and needy as we heard proclaimed in today’s Responsorial Psalm - “For he shall rescue the poor when he cries out....the lives of the poor he shall save.” To be able to receive such a wondrous love, we have to recognize our own poverty. If we have enough money, enough food and enough comforts, it is very likely that we do not have enough faith, hope or love. If that is the case, then we have to serve the poor around us. In that way God’s love will be revealed in and through us for all the world to see.