Christians in the world may have more occasions to help the needy. Even if they do not, there are always opportunities to serve the others in their own circle: family, friends, neighbors, co-workers. Before Jesus ended His public ministry, He provided a way for Christians to model their lives on His by serving those closest to them. He washed His disciples’ feet, saying: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:7). The image of the Lord washing His disciples’ feet has become the foremost icon of service for the Christian world. Few remember, however, that Christ actually urged His disciples to mutual service: washing one another’s feet. The followers of Christ are to imitate Him by serving one another.
Elsewhere Christ told His followers that caring for the needs of the poor is caring for Him, whether one knows it or not. “I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me’ (Matthew 25:35, 36).
It is often said that the Eastern Churches have focused on prayer and fasting as their prime spiritual practices, while the West has stressed serving Christ in the poor as their foremost way of imitating Christ. This does not do justice to either East or West. The West has its share of ascetics and the East has an equally strong tradition of seeing Christ in the face of the poor. The life in Christ lived by the Church involves both asceticism and a rich liturgical life, as well as ministry to those in need.
St John Chrysostom is chiefly known for the way he influenced the liturgical life of the Byzantine Church. He also was outspoken in insisting that the Church embrace serving those in need as a way of glorifying the Lord. In his fiftieth Homily on Matthew he equates serving the poor with venerating the Eucharist! “Do you want to honor Christ’s body? Then do not scorn Him in His nakedness, nor honor Him here in the church with silken garments while neglecting Him outside where He is cold and naked. For he who said: This is my body, and made it so by His words, also said: You saw me hungry and did not feed me, and inasmuch as you did not do it for one of these, the least of my brothers, you did not do it for me” (Hom 50, 3-4).
The Legend of the Two SaintsThere is a Russian folk tale about Saints John Cassian, the ascetic and Nicholas the Wonderworker. While the story does not depict the saints in any historical way, it tells us a good deal about the writer’s desire to follow Christ through service.
It is said that St. John Cassian and St. Nicholas were sent by God to survey the Slavic lands, to see what condition the Church and the people were in. As they completed their mission and were preparing to return to heaven, St. Nicholas spotted a farmer whose wagon had gotten stuck in the mud. “Come on!” said St. Nicholas. “Let’s give this poor man a hand.”
St. John surveyed the scene. The wagon was in the muck up to its axels. The horses could hardly move. The farmer and at least a half a dozen people had waded into the mud, pushing and pulling and sweating and swearing.
“We can’t do that,” St. John said firmly. “Our robes will get filthy. We’ll be unfit to enter the Kingdom.”
But while the words were still on his lips, St. Nicholas had waded in. He first calmed the horses, then, putting his shoulder to the wagon with the men, he pushed. The other men pushed with him, others pulled, and one guided the horses. St. John stayed back a respectful distance, watching.
The wagon at first held firm, then, little by little, it moved out of the muck.
St. Nicholas walked over to St. John, who took a quick half-step away from him. “Well, that’s done,” St. Nicholas said. “Let’s head home.”
White Robes and MudWhen they got to the gates of Heaven, God saw St. John Cassian’s sparkling white robe, and he saw St. Nicholas so covered in mud that it was impossible to tell what color his robe had once been. “Tell me what happened,” He said.
“There was this farmer,” St. Nicholas said, “and his cart and his horses were mired in the mud. I just took a few minutes to help them out before we came back.”
God turned to St. John. “And how did you manage to help this man without getting your robes soiled?”
“I didn’t, of course. You have clothed us in garments for the heavenly banquet, and I couldn’t possibly get them soiled with earthly cares.”
God looked at both of his saints, and his love flowed over them. “John Cassian, my beloved, you have indeed kept your heart in heaven, and your hands are clean of all things of the earth. And the heart of my beloved Nicholas is turned toward the people, however earthly their cares might be, and his hands are quick to help them when they call on him. And this,” he said, “this is why Nicholas, my beloved, has feast days in both summer and winter, and why he’s honored every Thursday besides. And this is why you, my beloved John Cassian, have but one feast day every four years.”
“Does a poor man approach you? Remember how poor you once were, and how rich you were made. One in want of bread or of drink, perhaps another Lazarus, is cast at your gate; respect the Sacramental Table which you have approached, the Bread of which you have partaken, the Cup in which you have communicated, being consecrated by the sufferings of Christ. If a stranger fall at your feet, homeless and a foreigner, welcome in him the One who for your sake was a stranger, and that among His own, and who came to dwell in you by His grace, and who drew you towards the heavenly dwelling place.
“Be a Zacchaeus, who yesterday was a Publican, and is today of liberal soul; offer all to the coming in of Christ, that though small in bodily stature you may show yourself great, nobly contemplating Christ.”
A sick or a wounded man lies before you; respect your own health, and the wounds from which Christ delivered you. If you see someone naked clothe him, in honor of your own garment of incorruption, which is Christ, “for as many as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” If you find a debtor falling at your feet, tear up every document, whether just or unjust. Remember the ten thousand talents which Christ forgave you, and be not a harsh exactor of a smaller debt — and that from whom? From your fellow servant, you who were forgiven so much more by the Master. Otherwise you will have to give satisfaction to His mercy, which you would not imitate and take as your copy.
St Gregory the Theologian, Oration 40