One Sunday morning in church, I wondered why the person beside me was breathing so loudly. Did he have some terrible lung ailment? Was he about to expire? It sounded almost like — snoring. As this thought surfaced (distracting me, I confess, from the liturgy), I became suspicious. I looked past my neighbour and his neighbour, at the floor by the wall. There, on the carpet, a shabby man was stretched out and snoring quietly; a homeless man, presumably, to whom the church had kindly allowed refuge on this chilly winter morning.
Immediately I recalled the arresting moment, during a conference on liturgy I attended, when a “model” liturgy was held in a north-side Chicago church. On the steps into the church a man sat begging, and all of us model-liturgists walked around him to get to the model liturgy. Now, seeing this church inauspiciously welcome the homeless man, giving him space and rest during mass, somehow reworked the sorrow of that old memory. This ordinary Sunday liturgy provided a “model” of a different sort: messier, more hospitable. More like St Paul’s vision of the Christian agape meal where everybody eats and drinks together because all are answerable for the body and blood of the Lord (1 Corinthians 11). Christians gather, Paul reminds the Corinthians, not for themselves but for one another, in Christ.
As the snoring went on, in rasping counter-point to the hymns, it seemed as if the tattered sleeping man was there to wake up us sleeping Christians, sitting in the church all around him. It’s easy to fall asleep in church, asleep to the Gospel that urges us to care for the stranger in our midst, asleep to the force of love that carves us out and asks us to carve out space for one another — the poor and the outcast first of all. This includes the poor and outcast parts of ourselves.
The man was earthy, but not pretty; easily overlooked, but in plain sight. In a way he was beautiful as he rested trustingly and defencelessly on the church. Unconditional love of the stranger, especially the suffering stranger, is one of the great marks of Christ and his church.
He reminded me of the ashes by which we enter Lent, a Catholic tradition since the 10th century at least. Real ashes, smeared on foreheads with a thumb, dirty and messy, and visible to all, though easily overlooked or misunderstood. They mark on our bodies that something has changed, and that something needs to change. Lent is an invitation to learn to love in a new way.
Ashes are the grey residue that’s left after something has been burned. Lenten ashes ask us to let our old selves be burned away so that the new self, the Christ-like self whom God created, can become clear again. The ashes aren’t virtual but physical, because our whole selves, body and soul, are part of this new life.
I looked again at the snoring man, wondering why he was so tired in mid-morning. I’d assumed he simply was homeless, but it occurred to me he also could be a pimp who’d been out all night ensnaring young women. Do I have to learn to love such a one? Can I? Lent is a school of asceticism meant to break our hearts. Maybe the broken heart can find room for the people we don’t know or don’t like. What would it mean to truly love others? To love the many, as does God who loved each of us into being?
Ash Wednesday this year happens to coincide with Valentine’s Day — a rare occurrence, this being the first since 1945. Some of us may be having romantic meatless dinners with ashes on our foreheads, or perhaps for our Valentine’s outing we’ll receive ashes with our beloved. It’s a pleasant little coincidence that highlights one of the greatest and most demanding human tasks: to learn to love the many as we love the one. It’s difficult for us, very difficult.
Since Adam and Eve, humans have been drawn to each other, to the joy of learning to love one other person truly and completely. Yet love between two people can become exclusive, to the detriment of themselves and others. In such cases, love is withered by selfishness and narrowness. Many will suffer from this destructive exclusivity on Valentine’s Day, and throughout the year.
Thankfully, loving one other need not be exclusive or destructive. If we are willing, such love of the “one” can be a key to learning to love all.
Entering into Lent as the common task and place of all Christians can help us be opened, little by little, to love of the many. God, who “loves each one of us as if there were only one of us” (St Augustine says), is the “lover of humanity.” Becoming God-like means learning to love as God loves.
Marrocco is a marriage and family therapist, teacher of theology, and writer, and co-ordinates St. Mary of Egypt Refuge. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org