I have no idea why he has no arms and hands. Most likely, his normal body was compromised before it could be formed in utero because, years ago, his mother was given thalidomide early in her pregnancy. Sold in a number of countries from 1957 until 1961, the drug was withdrawn from the market after being found to cause horrendous birth defects. He is probably one of thousands who today are living evidence of an almost forgotten medical tragedy in modern times.
I came across him on a leafy, downtown, pedestrian walkway in my town of Athens, Greece. With a plastic cup held firmly in his mouth, shaking his head up and down, he was begging for money from passersby. His toothy grin beamed above the lip of the cup as the lady in front of me deftly dropped-in a couple of Euro coins. Still shocked by what I saw, I determined to put some money in his cup when I returned from delivering the papers to my lawyer’s office. To my disappointment however, five minutes later, when I stepped back onto the pedestrian walkway, he was nowhere to be found.
Walking back to the trolley stop, I couldn’t shake the image of that tall man with no arms, bouncing his head up and down, hoping for coins to drop in a cup tightly clamped between his teeth. Even as I boarded the trolley and stood next to another man with arms, hands and a guitar, singing beautiful Greek love songs and also asking for donations, I couldn’t erase the picture of the armless man. In the swift, kaleidoscopic collision of many mental eruptions, lubricated by a generous dose of survivor’s guilt, I simultaneously wondered how he emptied the coins from the cup, how he got the cup in his mouth in the first place, what he did with the coins, why such things are allowed to happen to human beings and why you and I are so blessed to have the use of both arms and hands?
Almost immediately, as the trolley moved slowly through the mid-day gridlock, I recalled that well-worn Christian prose by Annie Johnston Flynt that affirms the essential truth that “Christ has no hands but our hands to do his work today.” St. Teresa of Avila, speaking to us rather than for us, earlier made the same point when she stated that “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, No hands but yours, No feet but yours.” While I believe that these sentiments are profoundly correct – that you and I are the means by which the work of Christ is continued in our world – the armless man on the street reminded me that the first half of Annie and Teresa’s statements remains also sadly true. In our world today, Christ (sometimes) has no hands or arms at all!
It was Jesus himself who, in his classic parable of the sheep and goats, told us that “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (Matthew 25:45) You may recall that he said this in response to those who were confused and defensive in responsive to Jesus’ critique of those who saw him hungry, thirsty, estranged, unclothed, sick or in prison and failed to respond. “When did we see you in this shape and did not help you?” (my summary of Matthew 25:44), they genuinely asked. Jesus’ reply indicates that, in some mysterious way, he is so intimately identified with hurting humanity that he is somehow present whenever anyone suffers.
If I take Jesus’ words seriously, then, on the street in Athens, Greece, I actually saw living, cup-bouncing, coin-clanking, teeth-jarring, head-bobbing proof that “Christ has no (arms and) hands!” Now, what am I to do with that?