Many years ago I read a story about a well-dressed couple with a young boy who were out to eat at a nice restaurant. The waitress took the parents’ orders and then asked the little boy, “What would you like?”
He was startled and answered uncertainly, “I want a hot dog…”
“No hot dog,” his parents interrupted, and the mother went on, “Bring him the beef and potatoes, a hard roll…”
But the waitress was looking right at the little boy. And she asked, “Do you want ketchup or mustard on your hot dog?”
The boy’s face lit up with an amazed smile. “Ketchup! Lots of ketchup! And a glass of milk.”
“Coming up,” said the waitress as she left everyone at the table in stunned silence.
After a moment the boy turned to his parents with wide eyes and said, “You know what? She thinks I’m real.”
Now there are obviously reasons to question the waitress’s behavior, but I love the story because of how much it meant to the little boy that the waitress gave him a voice, that she took him seriously, in a way that he obviously wasn’t used to. It’s the difference between being real and being…something less.
So many people in this world are never allowed to have a voice in this way. That’s one thing if you’re a little boy and you want a hot dog instead of beef and potatoes.
It’s something else if you’re a child working in a sweatshop in India or Russia or Brazil. Or if you’re a Christian living in North Korea, Somalia or Afghanistan. Or if you’re a woman living in Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Honduras.
It’s something else if you’re poor or imprisoned, if you’re a displaced person living in some tent city refugee camp year after year, if you’ve been abused in any way. Other people go about their business, oblivious to your suffering. You have no voice. You aren’t real.
Having a voice
The New Testament gives us two perfect prayers which the Church has taken up and prays every day: one from our Lord, the Lord’s Prayer or Our Father, and one from our Lady, the Magnificat, heard today in the responsorial psalm.
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord…” The Magnificat is a song of joy, appropriate to Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of joy, but it’s also a song of tenderness and fierceness.
Tenderness for the lowly and the hungry: the tenderness of Isaiah in the first reading for the poor, the brokenhearted, captives and prisoners. This is also the tenderness of our Lord, who quotes this passage from Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth, saying, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
So there’s tenderness in the Magnificat, but also fierceness toward the rich, toward the mighty on their thrones, toward the proud and arrogant of heart.
The Lord fills the hungry with good things and lifts up the lowly; he brings glad tidings to the poor, heals the brokenhearted, and proclaims liberty and release to captives and prisoners. But he also casts down the mighty from their thrones, sends the rich away empty, and scatters the proud in their arrogance of heart.
Both sides of the Magnificat, the tenderness and the fierceness, are surprising. The fierceness of the Blessed Virgin is surprising to many because of the sentimental picture of “gentle Mary,” “meek and mild,” that so many have from pious images and hymns.
But the tenderness is also surprising in a way. At least it should surprise us if we take a step back and look at the big picture of human history and culture.
Historically, the idea of casting down the mighty from their thrones has always been a popular one. There’s never been any shortage of bad, oppressive leaders and people hating them. But the idea of lifting up the lowly — that idea hasn’t been nearly as popular.
Every social revolution in history has failed, says G.K. Chesterton, because it could only fulfill half of what the Magnificat calls for: Revolutionaries have often managed to cast down the mighty from their thrones, but no revolution has ever lifted up the lowly.
The rich and powerful have often been hated, but they’ve always been important. The poor, hungry, captive, oppressed, and abused have generally been voiceless, invisible, overlooked. Who hears the cry of the poor?
No end to injustice
We know the answer to that question. The Lord! The Lord hears the cry of the poor. And in the scriptures we see that the Lord’s prophets hear that cry. The Old Testament is full of concern for the plight of widows and orphans, strangers and foreigners.
And the voice of the prophets is heard in some way in every movement in history for justice for the oppressed — the movements to abolish slavery and child labor, to achieve equal rights for women, to end segregation in the United States and South Africa, to secure civil rights for African-Americans, and so forth.
And yet there’s no end to injustice. Just nine days ago a couple who’ve lived right here in New Jersey for 30 years, Oscar and Humberta Campos, were deported to Mexico, leaving behind three children between the ages of 16 and 24. Their parish, Holy Cross in Bridgeton, fought to keep the family together. Bishop Dennis Sullivan of the Camden diocese pleaded on their behalf to lawmakers and the president. But so far their voices haven’t been heard.
“They broke the law.” Yes, they broke the law 30 years ago by fleeing horrific violence and poverty and coming to the United States. Pope St. John Paul II said in 1996 that illegal immigration should be prevented.
But he also condemned deportation as an intrinsic evil, the kind of act that is evil always, evil in itself. Taking people out of their communities where they’ve built lives for themselves for decades, breaking up families, taking parents away from children — no law can justify that.
Even people who break the law have rights. Recently some prisons in the United States have been replacing prison visits with video visits. Imagine that: just suddenly being told one day that you can’t be in the same room as your loved ones any more, even with Plexiglas between you. It’s just too much trouble. Prisoner advocates say this is cruel and inhumane, but so far their voices haven’t been heard.
But sometimes the opposite happens. Sometimes people speak up and are heard. In just the last few months we’ve seen an incredible movement of women and also men who have been abused or taken advantage of by powerful men speaking up and being heard and believed. And from in Hollywood, to New York and Washington, D.C., the mighty are being cast down.
Throughout history those who are weaker have been abused by those who are stronger. Trusted family members and friends, teachers, superiors at work, powerful leaders, priests and religious. And far more often than not the abusers get away with it. They target those who are vulnerable or weak; they make them weaker; and then what can they do?
Those who have been abused rarely speak up. Out of shame. Out of fear. Fear of retaliation, of being disbelieved. They usually have no evidence. Their abuser has more status than they do. They’re reluctant to make their humiliation public knowledge, to face being shamed as liars.
“Why didn’t she say anything before now? Why did she wait so long to speak up?” Partly because she knew she would face questions like that. It seems easier just to bury it down and try to forget about it, but of course you can’t forget about it.
Yet now there’s been a change. It started with a few women breaking the silence, which encouraged others to speak up, and from there it snowballed and eventually became an avalanche. It’s so remarkable that these “silence breakers” were picked by Time magazine as their Person of the Year.
Yet this avalanche is still just the tip of an iceberg. So many are still silent. In this church right now there are some — God knows how many — who’ve been abused and told no one, or maybe confided in one or two close friends. And the abuser faced no consequences, because what could you do?
If that’s not you, thanks be to God, I guarantee it’s someone you know. Probably more than one person you know.
The Lord comes to lift up, to heal, to proclaim liberty from bondage. The Lord hears your cry, and his people need to hear one another’s cries.
Open your eyes and your ears to the suffering of your neighbor, your brother, your sister. Every one of us who has been wronged deserves to be heard, whatever the circumstances or how long ago it was. God hears us — God hears you — but we have to hear one another. Like the little boy in the restaurant, we need to be heard, to be told: “You are real.”