You know how there are certain moments and events in our lives that impress us so deeply that we never can forget them. One of mine was the Broadway play, The Elephant Man. It was the very moving, true-to-life story of a man who was horribly afflicted with a disfiguring abnormality. He is frighteningly ugly in appearance, hardly recognizable as a human being. He became a piece of property for an unscrupulous merchant, who displayed him in a carnival where people paid to see him.
A medical doctor, realizing how valuable the elephant man could be in scientific research, took him to a hospital, where he lived for about four years, all the time revealing the beautiful person that lived inside such a repulsive body.
A glamorous actress was brought to meet him — but only after she was carefully instructed on how to regard him, what to say and what not to say, and, above all, which of his two hands to grasp. (Of his four limbs, only the left arm and hand were normal.)
She met him face to face and found the sight of him to be as repugnant as she had been told it was. After a long conversation between the two of them, in which she already began to appreciate the warm person he actually was, she reached out to shake his hand and to tell him what a pleasure it was to meet him. He responded with the normal hand, at which she withdrew hers and simply waited. He understood and gave her instead the sorry lump of misshapen flesh that was his other hand. It was a touching moment of rare tenderness and human love.
Jesus often asked his friends what people were saying about him, who they thought he was. In answer, they told him that many people thought he was a kind of miracle, an ancient prophet who had come back from the dead as a sign of the power and love of God. Jesus dismissed the speculation quickly and asked a question that seemed more urgent to him: “You, my followers and friends, who do you believe I am?” Peter responded for them all: “You are the one we’ve been waiting for, the savior promised to our ancestors.”
It was the wrong hand the crowd and even Peter had been offering to Jesus. Nothing should have been concealed or denied or held back. Jesus wanted to identify with the worst of the human condition. His intention was to make its disfigurement his own and to suffer its pains, even its death. His true followers, he insisted, would have to do the same, taking up their personal crosses and following in his footsteps.
The church celebrates a birthday today, that of St. John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and the one who first recognized him as God’s special gift to the human race. Jesus’ message was so simple: it consisted of just one word: LOVE — that we love our creator and love our fellow human beings at least as much as we love ourselves. That we accept each other with all our faults and forgive one-another as God always, without hesitation, forgives us. We are to forgive generously what we might call the ugliness in one-another, those qualities that we find distasteful, annoying, and sometimes hurtful.
When we are willing to lose our life, as Jesus puts it, by such personal sacrifices, we invariably discover that we have saved it, for our good and the good of others.
I wish you peace!