“In the beginning, when the work started,” wrote St Teresa of Calcutta, “I got a fever and had a dream about St Peter. He said to me, “No, there is no place for you here. No slums in heaven.” “All right,” I answered him, “then I shall go on working. I’ll bring the people from the slums to heaven.”
In the nineteenth century, many Anglo-catholic priests were drawn to the slum areas of cities and towns where people lived in squalid conditions. In London, one such priest who was campaigning for better sanitation, was told to stop interfering in secular matters. He replied, ‘I speak out and fight about the drains because I believe in the Incarnation’.
Another ‘slum priest’, Father Dolling, transformed the poorest area of Portsmouth. He created a gym to promote physical fitness and dancing, but his ‘Communicants Dancing Guild’ disgusted a local evangelical vicar.’ ‘Who can separate the secular from the religious?’ asked Fr Dolling. ‘Certainly the Master did not try to do so.’
Why did priests like these and people like St Teresa, and so many others before and since, connect Jesus with drains and dancing? The answer lay in the Incarnation – the belief that God in Christ has got involved and continues to be involved in the grittiness of human living.
Jesus has shown us that every area of life is the place where we find the divine, that God is present even in the places considered not very nice, especially in the places that are not very nice, places which can and do shine with the beauty and glory of the God who loves us.
The Eucharist is not separate from this. In the Eucharist we receive the presence of Jesus, who through the stuff of life, the matter of the earth, the material and everyday, has promised to be with us.
It’s in the Eucharist, through the breaking of bread that we share not only in Christ but in the life of one another. When we present our gifts of bread and wine, we are offering ourselves, our labours and loves, our sweat and sorrow, the work of our hands, the stuff of life and living, the grittiness of the world, the matter of life.
Using colourful Eucharistic language, as he moves towards martyrdom, St Ignatius talks about laying down his life for the Lord. “I am God’s wheat and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts to make a pure loaf for Christ” (Letter to the Romans).
As Christians, we are called to be involved in the world, to be alongside people, to be with people. “The difference between our work and social work,” said St Teresa, “is that we give wholehearted, free service for the love of God.”
The Church is called to be an Incarnational people, to be receive and be the presence of Jesus in the world today, to reach out with care and compassion, to lead people from the slums to heaven.