Our parish has a longstanding refugee committee on which I have served. The expulsion of those who became known as "boat people" from Vietnam in 1979-80 stirred parishioners to offer help. "Form a committee," they said.
Over the years, refugees from tyrannies in other lands came to the attention of this group. Working with the Department of Citizenship and Immigration and our own diocese, the parish committee provided settlement services to hundreds of people fleeing persecution and repression.
The committee worked diligently and received satisfactions from the successes of the newcomers as they settled in. Committee members formed enduring friendships, learned things about the refugees and learned about themselves from the refugees.
'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.'
The latter category contains an amusing and instructive incident. A family of nine persons, mother, father and seven children arrived unexpectedly from Afghanistan on Dec. 23 one year. Rush! Rush! Hurry! Scurry! Find accommodations, clothing, household goods, groceries, etc, etc. But for the usual mix-ups one might expect, all went well enough.
As Christmas approached the following year, Nassim, the father of the family, a Muslim and a journalist in his homeland, puzzled by the usual pre-Christmas frenzy approached me diffidently.
"Mr. Ralph!" he said. "I know about Jesus. We read about him in the Koran and I know about Mary. We read about her in the Koran too. But Mr. Ralph, who is Santa Claus?"
That innocent question soon generated another that abides in my memory to this day: what mental image does the word "Christian" bring to the minds of people of other faiths or no faith? A picture of the pope? Their churchgoing neighbour? No picture of any sort? How should others know us?
Today's readings tell us. They describe the essential mark of a Christian in the very words of Jesus himself answering a question from a scribe about the greatest commandment of all: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength . . . and you shall love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these."
1 Corinthians 13.4-7 contains a description of that love, clear enough to delight the reader. St. Paul comes close to using what we would come to know as an "operational definition": "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
"Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres."
Regrettably, I have not seriously pursued that question of how others see us as Christians. But I hope it might have a lot to do with the action of love in our lives as Jesus taught and its spirited display as described in St. Paul's letter.
(Ralph Himsl: firstname.lastname@example.org)