Today is the optional memorial of Sts. Cosmas and Damian, who were twin brothers born in the third century in Arabia. Both Cosmas and Damian became physicians, and in true Christian charity, refused to accept payment from their patients. During the persecutions under Roman Emperor Diocletian, the brothers’ renown in their Christian community made them easy targets. They were imprisoned and tortured by various means in an effort to force them to recant their faith, and after surviving most of these tortures while remaining true to Christ, Cosmas and Damian were finally beheaded.
What draws me to the story of Sts. Cosmas and Damian is not only their adherence to the faith while under excruciating torture, but also their unfailing generosity to those around them. They tended the sick in their community and did so without asking for or taking any monetary compensation. I like to think this was because they were often helping sick people who were also too poor to afford a physician in the first place.
Generosity is a virtue that can easily be motivated by pride—we do good things for others, secretly hoping to get accolades or some kind of reward for being so self-giving. But I think generosity is really about giving to others —material, spiritual, or emotional—because you know the other will benefit, even if there is no compensation for you in return, or if (like Cosmas and Damian) you refuse to take any.
Generosity is not only exemplified by a wealthy man donating money to charitable causes, nor only by going on mission trips to help those in poverty, nor is it demonstrated by showering poor children with gifts at Christmastide. We can cultivate the virtue of generosity in ourselves much closer to home and on a daily basis—just as St. Cosmas and St. Damian did. Generosity is lived out by a talented musician volunteering at his church to worship God in song, or by a mother who prepares and brings home-cooked meals to other families in her parish who have a new baby or have had a recent surgery. There is also spiritual and emotional generosity: being present and available to our siblings, children, parents, or friends as they struggle with transitions or discernment. When we engage in these acts of generosity, we serve Christ by serving others—even if it is not necessarily a sacrifice for us to do so. (Although I know for myself, the sacrifice that comes with being generous is striving to be selfless in my generosity and not to expect or desire reciprocation.) We are called to use anything that we have been given in order to glorify God.
And what about those—presumably poor—people that Sts. Cosmas and Damian healed and treated? Who knows what kinds of generosity they were able to offer to their benefactors as a result of their encounter with the twin saints? Maybe they were generous in their prayer lives and interceded for the physician brothers. Maybe they were inspired by the generosity and faith of the two saints and went on to assist others in their community. Even if we cannot always be materially generous to each other, giving of ourselves in any capacity can cause a ripple effect of generosity throughout our communities.
We can also learn to support and foster the generosity of others by thinking about how we respond when we are offered someone’s generosity, whether we asked for it or whether it was volunteered to us. Personally, I am working on asking for help or accepting generosity with humility. I know that I am less likely to help someone if they repeatedly protest my efforts or insist that I am doing too much, and therefore I try not to protest or downplay the good work that someone does for me. I try to remind myself that by serving each other, we are ultimately serving Christ.
Questions for Reflection: Have you ever been the recipient of an act of generosity that changed your life? How so?
We often associate tree climbing with child’s play—it’s an action that requires flexible limbs and a daring outlook that only winks at the possibility of risk. I can’t imagine it being much different in the ancient world. To see a man quickly climbing up a tree just to get a glimpse of another must have been perceived as childish and perhaps a little embarrassing.
The Gospel today speaks of a short-statured man who grew quickly in the eyes of God. Zacchaeus may be chuckled at for his stature, but he can be looked up to as a model of faith in action. At the time Christ comes to his town of Jericho, Zacchaeus is not an upstanding man. But something about Jesus calls to him, so much so that Zacchaeus is willing to do anything—even climb up a tree—just to catch a glimpse of him. The beginning of the Gospel mentions that Jesus “intended to pass through the town.” However, upon encountering Zacchaeus, he stops, calls him by name, and accompanies him to his home to dine with him. And Zacchaeus’ response is joy.
This joy comes from a newfound generosity blooming in Zacchaeus’ heart. The man who once extorted his community responds quickly and tells Jesus he will give away half his possessions to the poor. Furthermore, he pledges to repay—four times over—anyone he has extorted. The man, called a sinner by the rest of the town, has been called by name by Christ and responds with faith in action. He has experienced conversion, and his actions result in Christ saying, “today salvation has come to this house.”
Is this how we await Christ, so longingly that will we do anything just to glimpse him? Or are we off somewhere else in the town of Jericho, distracted or lukewarm to the knowledge that Christ walks in our midst? What if every member of the Church—the clergy, religious, the laity—awaited Christ with the expectation of Zacchaeus? It is this desire and willingness that has disposed his heart to be receptive to God’s work. It is a small glimmer of the receptivity of Mary when she gave her fiat at the Annunciation. And through this, God can work miracles—the birth of a Savior from a virgin womb, the conversion of a short-statured, greedy sinner.
As a Church, we often go back and forth between roles. We are the sinful people called to encounter Christ and bring his mercy and joy to the world, but we can also play the role of Christ in our work of evangelization. Christ—who calls Zacchaeus by name and is not afraid to dine with sinners. Christ—who changes his plans in order to minister to those right in front of him. Christ—who comes “to seek and to save what was lost.” As Pope Francis said in his closing homily at the end of the Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, “That is how God operates. He gets personally involved with preferential love for every person. By his actions, he already communicates his message. Faith thus flowers in life.” And what are Zacchaeus’ actions if not faith flowering?
This flowering faith is what Pope Francis and the Synod Fathers are reminding the Church of once more as the Synod has come to a close. Almost a month out from this historic event, we are called to ponder deeply the prompting of the Holy Spirit and, like Zacchaeus, seek an encounter with Christ. It is this encounter with a personal God who calls us by name that will enable us to go out, as Zacchaeus did, with generous joy to repay our debts and minister to the poor and lowly.
Let us call our brothers and sisters on the fringes by name. Let us put aside our preconceived notions of ministry and evangelization and answer to the needs of the moment. Let us sit and dine with our brothers and sisters. “Let us ask ourselves whether, as Christians, we are capable of becoming neighbours, stepping out of our circles and embracing those who are not ‘one of us’, those whom God ardently seeks.”
Today, let us carry the light of Christ in our hearts and imitate him in seeking and saving what was lost.
When my husband and I were preparing for marriage, we spent time in reflection and prayer carefully choosing our Mass readings. It was such an exciting decision to make, and we prayed that the readings would reflect and inspire us in our marriage and all whom we would witness to by our marriage. Some of these same readings will be read at Masses across the world on the upcoming feast of the Holy Family, serving as a reminder of how we can live as reflections of the Holy Family in our daily lives.
In the second reading, Paul tells the Colossians, “Put on, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Col 3:12). Just like Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, we are God’s beloved, chosen and loved by God, and with that, we are called to live by these same virtues that Paul shares with the Colossians. The stories of Mary and Joseph consistently show us their lives of humility and gentleness. I think of Mary’s fiat (Luke 1:38), Joseph’s obedience to the angel of the Lord (Matthew 1:24), or how Mary and Joseph took Jesus to be presented in the temple in this weekend’s Gospel (Luke 2:22-40). Just like Mary and Joseph, we are called to serve and love God with faithfulness that is radical, but gentle and sweet.
What does this faithfulness look like? For the Holy Family, not only did it manifest in the stories we read about in Scripture, but also in the mundane moments of the every day. Mary nursed Jesus as an infant, Joseph taught him carpentry, and Jesus served his parents and brought them joy! Jesus carried this love in his ministry that nurtured all to whom he preached, and it continues to carry on in the legacy of the Church. These little acts of faithfulness yielded enormous fruits and carried the Holy Family through times of immense suffering.
As I feel overwhelmed with my day to day duties of family life as a wife and mother, or my job as a teacher, I find comfort in knowing that perhaps Mary and Joseph felt these demands, too. They were faithful to their vocations, to each other, and to the Lord. Life is a balancing act, but with “Christ dwell[ing] in you richly,” like the Holy Family, all can be done in love, “do[ing] everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col 3:17).
You show faithfulness when you do the dishes, when you submit an assignment for work or school, when you make the bed. You show faithfulness when you play with your children, when you have coffee with a friend, when you stop and pray. You show faithfulness when you show up to Mass. Opportunities for faithfulness, humility, and gentleness are in the every day, both big and small.
Through these opportunities for faithfulness I have learned that God is never outdone in generosity. He wants to bless us and let us know His love, and He does this in the most profound way when we show Him our faithfulness and love, just as the Holy Family has modeled for us. As we continue to navigate the demands of our daily lives, let us cling to the intercession of the Holy Family, that we may be gentle and humble, showing radical faithfulness in all that we do.
Question for Reflection: What are some opportunities to show for faithfulness in your life?
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Alyce Shields is a teacher in Washington D.C.