Martin of Tours was a Roman soldier when he had what the writer Flannery O'Connor would have called his moment of grace. Martin was stationed in Amiens, France, when he encountered a half-naked beggar at the city's gates. Martin took his sword, cut his cloak in two, and gave the beggar half of it. That night, Martin had a dream. In the dream, he saw Jesus Christ wearing his torn cloak. Christ was telling angels how Martin had clothed Him when He was cold and naked. When Martin awoke, he decided to devote his life to following Christ. Martin of Tours is now the patron of beggars and soldiers.
I like that story for a few reasons. First, I like it because it's about a guy named Martin, and that's a great name. Second, I like it because it's about unsolicited charity, an act of kindness that somehow proves to me that people are basically good. Third, I like it because it involves a cool, ecstatic vision. That just doesn't happen any more. Jesus doesn't make very many personal appearances these days.
Martin's story also underscores a pretty basic lesson I learned in Sunday School a long time ago (sing it with me): "Whatsoever you do to the least of My people, that you do unto Me." You better be good to that one-armed, club-footed, blind server at Red Lobster, because she just might be Jesus in drag. It's a rule I try to remember, but it's also a rule I don't always follow. I have a really bad habit of being too judgemental. If you have read any of my previous posts, you might have noticed that sarcasm comes pretty naturally to me. Which means that I have ridiculed or insulted Jesus Christ on more than one occasion. That's probably not a good thing to do on a regular basis.
I have a close friend right now who's going through a really tough time with a loved one. Without getting into too much detail, it's a situation that requires my friend to exercise a lot of tough love, doing stuff like letting the loved one flunk out of college, lose a job, be stranded alone at Christmas. It's a horrible position to be in.
I remember one Christmas when my wife and I were separated. She was living an hour-and-a-half away and was driving a minivan that had over 200,000 miles on it. Its door was broken; she had to use a bungee cord to keep it closed. She had moved out of our home about four months before and was in the grips of her sexual addiction completely. I was raising our daughter alone, and I was having a difficult holiday season. I didn't even put up a Christmas tree until my daughter begged me.
On Christmas night, I went to my wife's sister's house for a family get-together. My wife's family had been very supportive of me. They'd helped me paint my daughter's bedroom, cleaned my house from top to bottom, straightened the junk in the attic. The get-together was warm and light. My wife was there, and our daughter was overjoyed to be with her. On only a few occasions did things get tense, but I worked to stay upbeat and Christmasy. At the end of the evening, I was packing up my daughter's presents when my wife approached me.
"I was wondering if I could spend the night at the house," she said quietly.
I looked at her, at her pleading eyes.
It was a cold night, about fifteen below zero. It was the kind of night where the snow doesn't crunch underfoot. It snaps. I didn't want to send her back to her apartment. I didn't want her to drive her shitty vehicle over two hours through an arctic night to an empty home. I didn't.
I looked back at her for almost a full minute. Finally, I said, "I don't think it would be a good idea." I told her it would confuse our daughter.
She nodded and smiled. "Yeah, I know," she said. "I understand. Merry Christmas." She kissed me on the cheek.
Sometimes, love means you leave the beggar half-naked at the city gates.