Washing dishes and the baby Jesus

Yesterday was the birthday of Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk, peacemaker, poet, meditation master. Born in Vietnam on October 11, 1926, he is an example of what is often called “engaged Buddhism.” His advocacy of peace in Vietnam, his concern for the Vietnamese boat people, and other actions for peace were expressions of his Buddhism.

I came upon his writings during the Vietnam War and was struck by someone who refused to glorify violence from any side, but who sided with the suffering.

I also came across an account of an encounter he had with Jim Forest who was washing dishes, which Jim wrote about later.

Somehow Nhat Hanh picked up on my irritation. Suddenly he was standing next to me. “Jim,” he asked, “what is the best way to wash the dishes?” I knew I was facing one of those very tricky Zen questions. I tried to think what would be a good Zen answer, but all I could come up with was, “You should wash the dishes to get them clean.” “No,” said Nhat Hanh. “You should wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” … But what he said next was instantly helpful: “You should wash each dish as if it were the baby Jesus.”

This struck me to the heart. I like washing dishes, especially since living in New York City. In a cold apartment one of the ways to get warm in winter was washing dishes since the tap water was usually hot.

I still occasionally pause as I wash dishes to savor the delight of washing dishes – though I don’t often wash them as if they were the baby Jesus.

But now, as a deacon, these words have taken on a new meaning.

One of my responsibilities is to clean the sacred vessel after communion. As I move hosts from one sacred vessel to another, I often take gentle care, as if I were moving the Baby Jesus, as I would pick up a little child, holding them gently in my arms.

But there is more. One day, during the Mass to celebrate the canonization of Mother Teresa, I was cleaning the ciborium which had a lot of little particles of the hosts. As I sought out each particle, even the tiniest one, I looked up and saw a group of kids in the middle of the aisle, with the volunteers of a home for kids, Amigos de Jesús. I thought immediately. I am taking care of each tiny particle in which I encounter Jesus; so too I am called to encounter and care for the tiniest child, in whom I can also encounter Jesus.

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