Vessels of Christ
The Feast of Christ the King

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, thirsty and you gave me something to drink.

Every time I hear this gospel, I’m reminded of Mother Theresa. It was her favorite Scripture. She quoted it all the time: I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, thirsty and you gave me something to drink, sick and in prison and you visited me.

There’s an old theological maxim: grace perfects nature. Divine grace moves us to love the Lord in the suffering, in the despised and needy of this world; for Christ loves the downtrodden and the poor of this world so much that he identifies himself with them. He becomes them, so to speak, so that what we do for them we do for him, and our treatment and love of them is the measure of our love for him. But when we respond to divine grace, we actually do what our deepest nature already demands of us and prepares us for.

If we consider the various stages of human development, we see that every stage is a preparation for the subsequent stage, which in turn is a preparation for the stage that comes after, and so on. We enter this world as babies. Now the life of a baby is totally centered on himself. He screams when he’s hungry, is satisfied when he’s fed, he needs to be constantly amused. He is completely dependent upon another, and it is only gradually that he realizes the world outside of him is not an extension of himself. The baby is the very center of his world.

The toddler stage is different. His interests change. He knows the world is distinct from himself, but his thinking is influenced by fantasy, that is, by the way he’d like things to be, and he believes that other people see life and its various situations from his viewpoint. He takes in information and then changes it in his mind to fit his ideas. A little girl will, for example, take a toy dump truck and personalize it, put a blanket over it so that it can have a nap. The child knows that toy not as it is in itself, but as she wants it to be.

What happens to the child at this age is always interpreted in reference to himself or herself. The child thinks egocentrically—and that’s just natural, it’s a part of being a child. So unfortunately, if a child is being abused, in the child’s mind, it is his fault; he’s not capable of thinking otherwise.

But in adolescence, things are very different. What once interested the child is no longer interesting when the child reaches adolescence. His body is beginning to change; he is beginning to experience a new feeling, namely the experience of falling in love. There is a sexual awakening. And so there is a greater preoccupation with one’s appearance. The difficulties of adolescence come from being pulled in two directions. The adult world expects greater responsibility, but there is still a preoccupation with the self, and although this preoccupation with the self is not as intense as that of the baby or the toddler, still, it is relatively self-centered. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s just part of that stage of development.

But what is the adolescent body preparing for? The bodily changes have to do with fertility. The body is preparing for parenthood. The sexual awakening is a preparation for parenthood; adolescence is ordered towards parenthood. But the life of a parent is not centered on the self, but on another, namely a child. And just as the adolescent no longer delights in what the child finds amusing, the adult no longer delights in what he or she once found amusing in adolescence—unless of course we are dealing with an adult who is stuck in adolescence, and there are many. A parent whose maturity level has grown along with the development of his or her body will find parenthood delightful, despite its difficulties. There is great joy in loving and raising children, because there is great joy in loving others for their own sake. But such joy has to be discovered by actually making that sacrifice. It’s not like trying a new dish in order to see if one likes it.

So what we see when we look at these stages from a bird’s eye point of view, is that there is a gradual transition from self-centeredness to greater selflessness, a gradual emancipation from the self. Human development moves from the most self-centered existence to a gradual turning outside the self to focusing one’s life around another or others.

Parenting, of course, does not last forever. The children eventually grow up and leave home. However, by this point, the adult should have learned that this life has something to do with learning to love and that the greatest joys in this life are the joys of loving the other selflessly, above all loving the Great Other selflessly, namely God.

Our purpose here is to prepare for eternal life, which is the joy of complete selfless love within the very heart of the Trinity. The Trinity is a divine community of knowledge and love. The life of post-parenthood, then, ought to continue the progression, and so it ought to be a life of service to others, service to a wider community than one’s immediate family. This is the time above all to prepare for eternal life, not the time to revert to an earlier stage through a life of leisure and ease. In retirement one is certainly not going to work to the same extent as one did throughout one’s life, but with the more time that one has, one ought to use that time for the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. The problem is many people think it’s the time to retire to a leisurely life in Florida or the tropics; they fail to realize that this life is about preparing for the coming of the Bridegroom.

What we do for the least of his brethren, we do for him. The Lord loves the poor so much that he identifies with them, to the point of becoming them, but his doing so is also a result of his love for us who are not so poor and oppressed and engulfed in suffering. You see if we love others, we want them to be better than us, to be higher than us, greater than us. So, if Christ loves us, he wants us to be in a better position, so to speak. A proud man will not allow himself to be dependent upon another in any way—he has to be top dog always. An envious man does not want the other to be in a better position than himself. But Jesus is not proud and he is not envious. He descends into the very life of the suffering and the poor so that we who are not poor and suffering can know the joy of serving him (Christ), who makes himself dependent upon our service. He decreases so that we may descend to him and love him, so that he may look up to us, so to speak, and that he may have an excuse to reward us with riches beyond our ability to imagine. That’s how great and humble God is.

If we learn to serve such a God as this, who lives in the flesh of the suffering and the afflicted, we’ll eventually realize that this is the pearl of great price that he speaks about in the parable, and nothing else will matter, and the only thing we’ll want, for the rest of our lives, is whatever will help secure this hidden treasure that only some people seem to find. The great gift of the poor is that they are the vessels that contain this hidden pearl, and many of them don’t know it. But it’s a great thing to be called to help reveal that to them by our attention and service to them.