franciscan - January 1996
© The Society of Saint Francis, 1995
by Brother Colin Wilfred SSF
Andy sat on the sofa lovingly cradling the new born baby of some friends of his, a powerful picture of our bodily beginning and ending almost too poignant to recall even now. He had been a very handsome young man, but was now disfigured with Karposi’s sarcoma (a form of skin cancer symptomatic of AIDS), but his love, gentleness and delight were undimmed and remained so until his death a few months later.
The Episcopalian bishop of California, Bill Swing, once said to his clergy, “don’t come to me with your problems about AIDS until you can say that you have looked into the face of a person with AIDS and seen the face of Christ.” As I know from the reaction of some readers of this magazine and elsewhere, some Christians find that discovery difficult to make.
People living with HIV and AIDS, men, women and children in their millions across the face of the earth, are not primarily a virus or a disease. They are certainly not just a blameworthy means whereby that virus has been transmitted. They are primarily human persons, physical bodies, embodiments of God’s image and likeness, dwelling places of the Spirit.
Someone once said to me “HIV and AIDS is the disease of the unloved” and certainly its heartlands have been amongst the unloved communities of this world; the black, the poor, the gay, the drug user, those in prostitution and so on. In many parts of the world it is the man who has infected his female partner because so often women have no power over their own bodies in a male- dominated society where we men play out our power games, whether it be through war, economic exploitation, despoiling the creation or in sexual relationships.
In living and working amongst those of us who are living with or affected by HIV and AIDS, I feel I have come closer to the Jesus who chose to be with the outsiders, the unwanted, the unclean of his church and society. Often for Jesus that ‘being with’ was a matter of bodily contact and that human touch manifested the power of God to heal. It enabled men and women to know that they are loved and accepted both for what they are and what they might become. He brought both the message and actuality of freedom into their lives and his own suffering and death spells out in bodily form that total identification which brings new life and unimaginable freedom.
To sit beside the bed of someone fighting for breath in a grotesquely emaciated body filled with endless infections, with mother holding one hand and the partner the other and friends embracing the feet, inevitably has gospel echoes. In the person and crucifixion of Christ we see the ultimate example of Human Immune Deficiency made incarnate in the flesh of him whom we call God and by whom we judge what it is to be human.
“All that matters in the end is unconditional love” was often said by my friend Peter, the first person I ever met with HIV some ten years ago. I have seen no reason over the last decade to revise that opinion. I am well aware that we all fall short of that ideal yet I continue to be suspicious of those individuals and groups in society and church who say “Ah yes, but . . .”
But HIV and AIDS is not just about sickness and dying, it is also about living and celebrating, perhaps put into sharper focus by the fact of diagnosis. Mike, who died recently, once told me that as he listened in turmoil to the health adviser telling him he had an HIV positive diagnosis, he heard Jesus saying to him personally, “This is my body”, and in that traumatic moment he was assured of God’s love - an assurance that never left him.
In Kazantsakis’ novel about Saint Francis God’s Pauper, in the story of Francis’ encounter with the untouchable
of his time, the leper, Francis says to his companion, “There will be lepers on every road.” Why should we think
that our time and place should be any different? In some ancient versions of the story, the leper vanishes and
Francis realises that he has kissed the Body of Christ - the trouble is that you can’t know the living Christ until
you have embraced him in the body.
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