Friday, November 28, 2008
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” (Mark 1:2-3)
“SOUL-SURFING” – December 7, 2008
Second Sunday of Advent
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC
On this Second Sunday of Advent, we hear of the mission of John the Baptist, the one sent to prepare the hearts and minds of people to receive the Word of God as delivered through his son, Jesus. Harking back to Old Testament prophecy, Mark the Evangelist introduces us to John through the words of Isaiah: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” (Mark 1:2-3)
Even as we hear today’s scripture readings, our imaginations may lead us to recall people who, like John the Baptist, opened anew our minds and hearts to receive the Word of God. During this holiday season, we may well remember family and friends who touched us with a warmth that reminded us of God’s love. We may remember encounters with complete strangers who left us with an insight that we later came to realize was God’s gift. Or we may remember those darker figures whose memory calls up pain and sadness, figures who, nonetheless, brought us nearer to God. Philip was such a person.
You could be sure of smelling him before you saw him. Sometimes, though, you first heard him loudly casting aspersions upon the challenged ER staff who only wanted to clean him up, sober him up, and fatten him up before his ill-advised return to the street. Indeed, Philip was one of but many homeless alcoholics who considered our hospital’s ER his home base. Termed a “frequent flyer” by exasperated medical personnel, Philip, complaining of almost anything but alcohol abuse, was brought to the ER by ambulance several times each week when the weather was temperate. With the change of seasons, though, he became a daily transport to the hospital, sometimes an ambulance crew delivering him several times in the same day. Over the years, Philip had been offered numerous opportunities for rehab, but he’d always refused. He insisted that the street was his home, alcohol his sustenance. Of course, everyone knew that it would end one day soon. Now in his mid-seventies, Philip’s frail body couldn’t go on much longer.
The end came early in the morning of an October day with the season’s first frost chilling even the heartiest. Having been brought to the ER late in the afternoon of the previous day, Philip had been given what refreshment and respite he’d allow the ER staff to provide. Still, though, he refused treatment for the alcoholism that was killing him. There being no more the hospital could do, he was discharged not long after midnight into the frosty darkness. Commented a young doctor, “It’s really sad, but you can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved.”
His body was discovered five hours later slumped beside a tree a short distance from the hospital. An ER nurse walking to work made the discovery. Checking for a pulse, it was obvious he was long dead; Philip’s body was cold as the frosty air. A 911 call was made to the police who, upon arrival, covered Philip with a white sheet. Then they cordoned off the area with yellow warning tape to await the coroner’s investigation.
The nurse who’d made the grim discovery breathlessly informed the ER staff of Philip’s death. A few who’d seen it coming just shrugged in resignation while others froze momentarily in place confessing that, though they treated thousands of anonymous patients annually, Philip was too well known to them, almost like family. One of the young doctors on duty asked if I’d go out to bless Philip’s body before they took it away. I was quick to comply, not so much for Philip’s sake, for I believed this sick homeless man had finally made it home. My concern was more for the ER staff who for years had provided as much care for this man as he’d allow. But it was never enough. At this, they were saddened and frustrated. Finally, in the end, the best care they could provide was to give Philip back to God with their blessing and affection.
In the early morning darkness, I went to the tree against which Philip’s covered body lay. With the permission of the police officers, I ducked below the yellow tape to kneel beside him. Lifting the sheet, the heavy sweetness of alcohol competed with the aroma of the scented holy oil with which Philip’s head was anointed. Commending him to God’s good care, I asked Philip to send some of heaven’s kindness upon the ER staff who for so many years struggled to give him what, in the end, only heaven could.
We hear today the opening words of the gospel according to Mark: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” (Mark 1:2-3) Indeed, we may recall during this holiday season the many warm, familiar voices that call us once again to celebrate God’s enduring goodness. This day our imaginations may conjure up holidays past when family, friends and fine food gladdened our hearts. But today’s gospel invites us to look in a different direction. Indeed, the gospel speaks of a voice crying out from the wilderness, that is, from a place far from the warmth and comfort that we usually associate with this season. In fact, the gospel tells us that we’ll more truly find God in the places we’d rather avoid than in the places to which we’re naturally drawn. The wilderness is a fearful place. It’s where Philip lived and where he died.
It’s now several months since his death, and winter’s approach has brought many others just like Philip to our ER. On a first name basis with hospital staff, these “frequent flyers” don’t want any of the high tech medical expertise we’re so well prepared to provide. No, these men and women just want a warm bed, a warm meal, perhaps a warm hand to hold. Remembering Philip dying outside alone in the cold, it’s a lot easier for us these days to reach beyond the smell of alcohol to hold a grimy hand, to warm for even just a moment a homeless heart.
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