“Do you know how long it has been since I’ve been hugged by someone who cared about me?”
The words themselves were striking. And yet it was even more striking as they settled in us, bearing the weight they ought to have, as we simply looked upon the one who had asked the question.
Of course, how could we know the answer?
I think his words were revealing to himself. His eyes were rimmed in unshed tears, the ache visible and arresting. He was surprised by the sweep of emotion and we were likewise caught up into that surprise. The moment before had been ordinary and now we found ourselves in suddenly deep waters, like when you walk along a riverbed and shockingly find yourself underwater when you simply expected the next step to be like all of the others.
It was another evening in prison, practicing the music before Mass. I don’t remember what preceded this conversation, but I remember the moment when we plumbed the depths. One of the men was sharing about how it was against the rules to hug volunteers and then another mentioned how he had recently been hugged by a pastor when he was struggling with a situation. And, suddenly, there we were in the depths as the man recognized the importance of that human contact, the need he had to be embraced by someone who cared about him.
I wondered if he even cried in the moment of receiving the hug. After he asked that question, those of us nearby could only turn and look at him, reveling in the stillness and sincerity of the moment. It was a window into his soul. We didn’t know what he had been struggling with at the time, but we were certain that this simple action from a pastor was life-giving and humanizing.
Though I wasn’t considering it at the moment, this exchange was perfect, given the Gospel for Sunday was Luke’s story of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man was indifferent or oblivious to the suffering of others, namely the poor man Lazarus who lay at his gate, covered in sores, desiring the scraps from the table. Only when the rich man finds himself in need does he reach out to Lazarus, overlooking the misery Lazarus experienced at his very doorstep and asking him for a drop of cool water.
The message isn’t that we should look forward to the downfall of those who neglect us. Rather, it is a call to open our own eyes and to be aware of the suffering and needs of others. To be sure, it is good to care about those far away from us. Yet the Gospel passage focuses on the people we are incredibly capable of helping, the ones that don’t require a plane trip or a dozen mission trip meetings. Jesus is inviting us to look at the people who sit at our door and to awaken to their needs. It is a Gospel which is both encouraging, since I don’t have to travel great distances to relieve someone’s suffering, and incredibly challenging, since the people closest to me might be the most difficult or awkward to assist.
The man in prison sharing how enlivening a simple hug, offered by one who genuinely cared, could be for him, invites me to consider the simple, small ways I can reach out to those near me and embrace them in their need. A moment of sincere listening, a small note to let one know they are on someone’s mind, a steady gaze accompanied by a warm smile, and the various ways we can encounter another in their need through the abundant riches we have stored up. The Lord continually invites us to follow Him into the depths, to embrace the one drowning and offer them the hope Christ offers us. In the ocean of each human heart, Christ calls us to cast out into the deep, making concretely present the incarnate God through a humanizing gift of self.
What can we offer to the one who is suffering at our workplace, in our parish, in our extended families, and in our homes? How can we offer the embrace we didn’t even know someone so desperately needed? How can we move from our own indifference into the radical compassion of Christ?