Someone once share with me a story about a priest who met a homeless man and tried to help him. The man was elderly and had a bleeding wound on his forehead and he seemed to be intoxicated. It was going to rain that night and the priest offered to take him to the shelter.
“I don’t want to go to the shelter,” said the man.
“Why not,” asked the priest.
“Because I like to drink. And you can’t drink there. They just want you to talk to a counselor and the counselors job is to just get you out of there as soon as possible.”
“I see,” said the priest.
The man then asked for money but the priest didn’t have any cash with him. So he asked the man if he was hungry and if he’d like to get something to eat. The man said yes. So the priest took the man into his car and they drove to a nearby restaurant for dinner. On the way there, the man turned and said, “thank you for doing this.” The priest said, “You’re welcome. Thanks be to God.” After hearing this, the man had a confused look on his face. The priest noticed and looking back at him asked, “Do you believe in God?” The man laughed loudly, “Do I believe in God? No way. I don’t believe in no god. god is just a myth. There is no god,” he said.
So they entered the restaurant and were seated. They waitress came and took the order. As they waited for the food, the conversation continued.
“When did you come to this conclusion that there is no god.” The priest asked.
When I was 49 years old,” said the man. “I had a wife and kids but she left me for another guy.” If there’s a god, why would he let that happen. I don’t need this kind of god that’s up there in the sky looking down on everyone like a tyrant, threatening me with burning in hell forever. I don’t believe in god, I believe in myself. So, I’m thankful to you for this meal. Not to god.”
The priest asked, “And before all this happened, did you used to believe in god? When you were a child?”
The man didn’t reply for a long time. He became despondent and sad. And then he blurted out. “My dad used to beat me when I was a kid, me and my brother, he beat us all the time.”
The order arrived a little while later and the priest blessed the food and secretly prayed for the man as well. As they ate, he tried to share with him the truth about God. That he is not an angry tyrant threatening us with hell but that he is a merciful God, a loving Father. It was then that the priest realized something.
“I want to tell you something,” said the priest. “For many people, their idea of who God is, what he is like, is based on their experience with their own biological fathers. If they were raised by loving and caring fathers, this is how they will perceive God, their heavenly father to be also. But if they were raised by angry, unloving, uncaring, abusive fathers, this is how they will believe God, the heavenly father, is as well.
The man didn’t respond but nodded his head a little and smiled. The priest told me that at this point, he felt had said everything he could and that he hoped that perhaps a seed had been planted in this man’s heart and mind.
When the meal was finished, they left the restaurant. “Where will you sleep tonight,” asked the priest. “In the woods or the park.” To which the priest replied, “you deserve better.”
I was reminded of this story when I read the account of Christ’s encounters in the country of the Gadarenes with a man who was also homeless and living among the tombs. He was also wounded and full of pain, a prisoner to the demons who tormented him. He was also considered a hopeless case, someone perceived as abandoned by God and society. He also deserved better. But the only thing he could do was to try and escape this torment somehow. The man in the gospel escaped into the desert, The homeless man in the story escaped into the bottle.
When the day is over and the sun sets and darkness descends, it is all encompassing and inescapable. But we know that the darkness is not forever because the sun rises again and floods everything with its glorious light. Everything becomes recognizable, approachable and beautiful again. So it is with the light of Christ. The light of Christ, illumines all, as we say in the liturgy of the pre-sanctified gifts.
“I am the light of the world,” said Christ in the gospel of John. “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.”
Where Christ is, no darkness can remain. Everything becomes recognizable in this light. Everything becomes exposed. In the gospel reading, we hear that Christ was simply passing through this country of the Gadarenes. But his presence, his power, his glory, his light, was all encompassing and inescapable, like the dawning of the sun over the darkness of the night. And this light exposed the demons and they cried out in fear. They had tormented the man for many years and had caused him to escape into the desert, afraid, naked, like an animal. Now, the light of Christ, exposed the demons, now they were naked, tormented and afraid, and they begged Christ to let them become animals.
Here we see Christ as the great defender of mankind against the power of the devil. The one who rescues us out of the darkness, who restores our dignity, our identity, our life.
In the same way, when Christ enters a person’s life, his presence, his light, causes the entire human person to be illumined. In fact, this is exactly what happens at baptism, which is also called Holy Illumination.
As believers in Christ, we must remain in His light. We must always strive to orient our daily lives, our priorities, our desires, in such a way that we remain standing in this light. Because when we become disoriented and distracted by something else, we begin to turn our backs to the light. And then our face darkens and we become unrecognizable to ourselves and to others. The mind descends into darkness and the body becomes enslaved to the passions and the power of the demons. Like the father of that homeless man, we do and say things that hurt ourselves and others. And we leave behind life-long wounds.
This is what happens to all of us when we sin. And the only cure is to turn to Christ in repentance, to step out of the shadows and into the sun and allow the healing warmth of God’s love to shine into our hearts. To allow the light of Christ to expose all those things within us, that may be keeping us enslaved and tormented like the man in the gospel.
Through confession and repentance, through the healing power of the sacraments, and through our faith and love for Christ, we can once again be restored to our rightful place, seated at the feet of Christ, like the man in the gospel reading, and, as the priest in the story prayed, so we must also pray, that this healing and restoration can also come to those who are homeless on the streets.
As Christ acted with power and love, so we must also act with power and love and do more to help those who are suffering on our streets, in our cities, whether they know God or not doesn’t matter. Whether they are Christian or not doesn’t matter. What we cannot do is dismiss them as lazy, as druggies, and blame them for their misfortune. Because, like that priest discovered, you never know the true story of a person, what tragic experiences in life led them to where they are today.
We must not judge. Rather, we are the ones that will be judged, not by how many sins we committed but by how much we failed to love. Because we are called to be that light, that healing light of Christ in the world. We are called to share the light that WE have received, that same light that has healed US. To put our faith into action. Because the world deserves better.
Glory be to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.