“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Mt 25: 40).
Of all the great sculptures I have seen, one of my favourites is the statue often called “homeless Jesus” by Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmaltz. Jesus, asleep on a park bench, has his features covered by a blanket but his feet are marked by crucifixion wounds. This is an apparently controversial statue, rejected by a number of institutions for varying reasons, and even prompting one parishioner to call police thinking it was a real homeless person. Far from an “insulting depiction” of Jesus, as some have claimed, the statue reminds us that Christ can be found in all places and in all people. Pope Francis certainly thought so when he prayed over a miniature of the work.
A photograph of this statue that made me catch my breath was one where the sleeping Jesus was covered in snow. It reminded me of the very real tragedy of homelessness, and the equally devastating agony of “living rough,” where an outdoor heating vent may be an individual’s only source of heat. I have written often about the impact of our university’s Humanities 101 program, which provides free education, free meals, transportation and even child care if needed, to Calgary’s most economically disadvantaged citizens. Over the years, a number of our participants have lived in the drop-in centre, and travelled each day to class. I suspect that for them the image of the homeless Jesus would be a powerful one indeed.
The passage in the Bible that is referenced by the statue is from Matthew, where Jesus reminds his disciples that what you do to the “least of my brethren, you do to me.” In a speech on the issue a few years ago, Bishop Fred Henry noted that homelessness “has been here from the moment that sin entered the world,” and that “through the lens of sacred Scripture” the inviolability and sacredness of the home is clear. As Bishop Henry went on to say, in the biblical text, “The loss of a place to live was, for this reason, one of the greatest misfortunes that could strike a people when war is raging in the countryside or cities.”
It is difficult when reading this not to think of Pope Francis’ own appeal to the world to do more to welcome the tens of thousands of refugees, and equally, the calls of many “good Samaritans” to help our struggling neighbours. To quote Bishop Henry once again, “we must not only be touched by others and their needs, we must respond to them from the very depths of our being. It means taking to the road in a spirit of solidarity with our brothers and sisters who may have no home, and assisting them spiritually and materially in ways that will enable them to ultimately experience the fullness of the kingdom of God.”
If Jesus is homeless, then, it is surely best understood as the result of our own blindness to the plight of others. And there can be no season that so reminds us of the need to be attentive to others as this, our Christmas season.
Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.