RICHMOND, Va. (BP) — Christmas 1914 on the Western Front witnessed a remarkable event.
The Great War, now known as World War I, had begun. Years of unimaginable death and destruction were ahead. Yet during the week leading up to Christmas a century ago, many German and British soldiers put down their weapons, crossed battle lines and shook hands. The informal “Christmas Truce” brought enemies together to talk of home, exchange food and cigarettes and engage in impromptu soccer games. Some even sang hymns and carols together.
In the darkest places, Christmas brings light. Enemies make peace. Old hatreds die, and mercy is born. Christ is glorified.
On the first Christmas God willingly entered enemy territory, disguised as a helpless child, to make peace with those who had rejected Him over and over through the ages. Only a few recognized Him when He walked among us. Even fewer followed Him. He was reviled, betrayed and denied before being put to death on a Roman cross. Yet He changed everything through His life, death and resurrection.
Have you encountered the Lord in disguise?
Jesus told his disciples: “For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me. … Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:35, 36, 40b NASB).
This Scripture passage formed the essential mission strategy of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who took Jesus’ words literally. For her, every hungry person, orphan and refugee was “Jesus in His distressing disguise.” The more distressing the disguise, the greater the need for our love.
In 1946 she sensed a “second call” from God to leave her original vocation as a teacher in a Calcutta convent and go to the streets, which were filled with the refugees of communal violence, poverty and indifference. One day she stumbled over a starving woman eaten with worms and lying in the gutter. She picked up the woman and took her to a hospital, refusing to leave until someone cared for the woman.
City authorities eventually gave Mother Teresa an abandoned Hindu hostel where she could take the nearly dead to die in the arms of love. Thus was born her mission to “the poorest of the poor.” In 1950 she founded the Missionaries of Charity, gradually expanding her ministry to lepers, disaster and war victims and the unborn. She even ministered to affluent Westerners afflicted with loneliness and isolation, which she regarded as the worst diseases of the developed world.
Mother Teresa carefully schooled her missionaries in simple acts, like touching.
“We train ourselves to be extremely kind and gentle in touch of hand, tone of voice and in our smile so as to make the mercy of God very real and to induce [others] to turn to God with real confidence,” she said before her death in 1997.
Which brings me back to my earlier question: Have you ever encountered Jesus in a “distressing disguise”? How did you treat Him?
Maybe He showed up in your town recently, speaking a strange language and carrying all His possessions in a plastic U.N. refugee bag. Maybe He’s sitting in the county jail, with no visitors except an overworked public defender. Maybe He’s working at the convenience store near your house and has nowhere to go for Christmas.
Maybe He’s living in an Ebola-stricken area of West Africa, in a refugee camp on the Syrian border or among a spiritually lost people group never touched by His modern-day followers, wondering if anyone will come bringing light and hope.
Were Jesus’ words about visiting Him by visiting others symbolic? Perhaps. But Mother Teresa’s lovingly practical approach to the “least of them” makes a lot of sense to me. One thing is for sure: God Himself personally visited us on the first Christmas in the form of a child, walked with us as a man, died and rose for us as a Savior.
One day in eternity, He we will ask us who we visited in His name.