My grandfather on my mother’s side had often entertained holiday tables with stories of his youth taking place in 1930’s Chester that were never without a mix of childlike innocence and boyish impishness. And many of those adventures may have included the confectionary concoction of a boy using his penknife to cut a small sliver of warm tar off the road and pop it in his mouth as a piece of chewing gum.
My dad enjoys telling the story of when he was a young boy and after enjoying nature, he came home to his mother, excited to show her the garden snake he found. She immediately screamed for him to take it outside, her motherly instinct setting in as she saw the thin reptile biting harmless fangs into his hand.
These two stories may sound gross to some, but set in the time they were, there is little doubt that the adults watching these events unfold were able to shake their heads and forgive it all with a sound “Boys will be boys.” And when those boys became men, they were still not afraid to chew on the road or let nature bite them when they got too close. Yet, it seems that being a boy and being a man have become different in an age where we try to be clean and pure. We are not allowing ourselves to get dirty, to stink of the earth, to sweat, to bleed because when we reached out, we got hurt in the process. Now, there is a generation of men getting manicures because they are afraid of getting dirt caked under their fingernails. And the dirt I am writing about is real and metaphorical.
As seminarians, as Christians, why are we often afraid to get dirty? When a brother is in trouble, why are we too scared to reach out and get his filth on our hands? We understand that underneath all that gunk is a brother in Christ, yet we tend to be afraid that his dirtiness on our hands may ruin our uninfected image. We cannot be afraid to get dirt under our fingernails while we claw out of the pit, our brother holding on to us because he simply cannot fight anymore.
Jesus Christ did not refuse the filth we brought to him. He let his hands get dirty as he healed and ministered to others. And he let his hands bleed when he healed all of us of our sins on the cross. He was not concerned about keeping an image of being above it all. He even descended into hell to release our first parents.
During this time of Lent, meditating upon the Passion of Christ, let us look around and see who else is being weighed down by their crosses. Let us see who is knee-deep in the filth of their sins. And in helping them up, let us not be afraid to get a little dirt on ourselves just so the other person can be a little cleaner. And when the people of God we later minister to as priests see us, they will recognize the strength we have received from such actions. They will see where we have been bitten when we raise our hands to bless them. They will see how we have chewed on the road when we smile. They will know that we love them because we are not afraid to take their dirt upon us, and in response, share the cleansing waters of God with them.
They will see how we have grown into the love God asks us to share.
After all, boys will be men.
Part two of this piece will be published next week.