When I saw Pope Francis lean over and kiss that severely disabled man in the crowd at his inaugural mass, I was almost undone. What I saw was my sister’s face.
My sister also bears the label “severely disabled.” She lives in a group home in the San Diego area and goes to “school” every weekday where she earns five cents for each towel she folds, line dances, and practices independent living skills. This last bit, independent skills, has not really taken hold because she has almost zero short-term memory and so every day she still needs to be coached through taking a shower.
I love her so much I ache, but this is no sentimental love. Once you share a bedroom with someone who cannot hold their bowels or has pouting fits because you won’t take her to Coco’s restaurant for macaroni and cheese, the romance ends. The severely disabled are as much of a pain in the you-know-what to live with as the rest of us. You can’t sell me on that pure of heart business; everyone needs forgiveness and grace.
But what broke my heart in that moment of Pope Francis kissing that severely disabled man hit me in a place that is about identity: how I identify myself and others. The cynic in me thought the pope might have done it for show, but the image kept dogging me so I decided to pray about it and ask God “what’s the deal here?” I met my friend and colleague Margaret Kelly who has two severely disabled siblings and understands sharing bathrooms and parents’ love with these folk, and she simply responded, “It’s because someone, who at least to the world is a symbol of power, recognized that this man was one of the least of these and in kissing him, welcomed him into the community.” And, I realized she was on to it.
We talked about Holy Communion and how the table does this same thing and then we mourned a little bit for all the severely disabled in the world who aren’t welcomed into the community of faith, including those who from all outside appearances don’t look severely disabled but feel that way inside, and don’t know that Christ’s community includes them. They don’t know they are terribly and wonderfully loved. There are a lot of people out there who thinks Jesus is going to tell them how inherently rotten they are and then offer tips about how they can shape up to be more like him. Of course, we are pretty rotten, but Jesus doesn’t view this as a problem. He loves to work in those rotten places—healing, raising, planting seeds and shoots, and generally digging at our mud. Jesus, our God, is a gardener at heart.
But, there was more to that Pope image that I couldn’t work out and it had something to do with the identity of the invisible man who carried the severely disabled one through the crowd to the front. Now, this severely disabled man looked pretty big, big enough that it would have been a real hassle to get him out of bed, into the car, haul him around, and then push through the crowd. But more than just the physics of the whole deal, this severely disabled man would have evoked pity or shame or unwanted attention.
In fact, just from my sister I know how embarrassing it can be to take someone out like this in public. So, often I don’t. My sister does inappropriate things like hugging people in the checkout line. She is too loud in restaurants and warrants angry glares from other Coco’s-loving patrons. She is disfigured and has terrible teeth and show strangers how chapped her lips are which is not a pretty sight, let me tell you. She points to people’s giant moles, the kind we all want to stare at but politely ignore, and then bows her head and noisily begins to pray for mole healing. She does not fit in with the agreed-upon, silently named norms of the community. She causes a scene. She is an embarrassment. She needs a lot of help. It’s easier to keep her at home. She really isn’t fit to go in public.
So, the invisible man, the man without the face, the man who carried the disabled man, haunted me. Who was he? Why didn’t he stay at home and just touch the TV when the pope appeared? What was he doing, flaunting this disabled man so publicly?
Then a student, Matt Johnson from Luther Seminary, preached a sermon from Mark 8. And, he found a textual variant in the Greek on Jesus’ words about being ashamed of “me and mine.” Matt’s take on this text undid me once again. Matt told about his wife’s grandfather who had a stroke and was difficult to take out in public because he would say unfiltered things and choke in restaurants and cause a scene and it was easier to keep him home. He was an embarrassment and he needed a lot of help and it was embarrassing to take him out in public. Matt’s words hit me like a ton of bricks, the way you get hit when you’re hit simultaneously with both law and gospel.
When the law holds up a mirror and you realize you are ashamed of Christ’s “mine.” I recognized the way I’m ashamed of my sister in public and the pure sinfulness of that, and at the same time, I was hit with the gospel which tells me that my sister is named and loved and included simply because she’s Christ’s child. Like Matt’s wife’s grandfather. Like that severely disabled man.
Like the way we’re ashamed to say our grown son secretly wears Little House on the Prairie dresses or our mother is an alcoholic and we don’t really want her at our wedding or how I’m ashamed to tell people I’m a Christian because I don’t want people to look at me differently. I’m embarrassed. And then there are our little secrets from our past that we keep hidden from others, whether we once worked as a stripper or we stole that piece of birthday cake and blamed the dog. We all have something to hide, whether it’s a person in our lives, or a part of ourselves that we’d rather just let silently slide in history’s vortex.
Our shame becomes our sin, but simultaneously it becomes the place where Christ comes to be merely the gardener. In taking on the utter shame of the cross, our shame (we forget how shameful this event was, like all your worst nightmares coming to the fore), dies along with Christ. And in return, we are given all the crazy promises of resurrection and we are given a whole new way of being. We live under the realm of grace now, and we don’t have to carry around our dung and shame and put bows and candy sprinkles on them.
Even more, we don’t have to hide it in an old shoebox in our psychic closet. We handle it liturgically, communally; we bring it forth in confession where Christ responds to you, “That looks heavy. I’ll carry it, for your sins are forgiven and your shame is no more.” And, you go to the table, where then Christ says, “Here, take this piece of bread. It is my body, the crucified and risen one, and the promises that come with it, are all for you.” It’s so simple, the grace is so great as the powers of this world are so overturned, and each one of us, so severely disabled are welcomed in on even footing, a place where we are gathered into community, a place where we all bear the same identity, namely ‘Child of God.’
I’d like to think on my best days, I’d carry my sister forward, without shame, without worrying about what others might think, to be kissed by someone who represents power in the church. I’d like to imagine her welcomed into community, a place she is not welcomed now. But, knowing a little bit about how the gospel works, I have the feeling that one day, it will be my sister carrying me to Christ, chapped lips and all. Carrying my disabilities, my shame, my sin. She will carry me proudly, her sister, even though I need a lot of help.