The sign on Our Lady of Calvary Roman Catholic Church which I pass on my way to Faith Lutheran read, "It's Lent. Pray, Fast, Give Alms." That pretty much sums it up, I thought. These are the classic disciplines of Lent--the forty day period in which Christians enter into the wilderness with Jesus in an attempt to get closer to God and prepare for Easter. The gospel reading which leads us into this holiest of times is Matthew 6:1-6 and 16-21. Here Jesus gives us instructions on praying, fasting, and giving.
"And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
(Matthew 6: 16-18)
Of course, it always amuses me slightly that our first ritual of Lent is to abandon Jesus' advice and publicly disfigure our faces with ashes. Why? In theory because ashes were the ancient symbol for our grief and our shame. This should lead us to ask, however, just what exactly is the source of this grief and shame? Are we really hurting and contrite, or is this just an empty ritual?
Not too long ago I was watching "The Daily Mass" on EWTN television. (I can't help it--our Roman brothers really do such a wonderful job with their worship and I really love the liturgy.) On this particular night the preacher was a very sweet-natured and soft spoken priest named Father Miguel. He had a lovely pious way about him, and I must say he wasn't a half bad preacher. He was preaching about piety and purity and I was really getting into what he was saying until he made a hard right turn and began denouncing what he considered to be the two great evils of modern American society: same-gender marriage and abortion.
Okay, I thought. The guy is a Roman Catholic priest and he's only doing his job. But I still felt it was awfully facile of Fr. Miguel to locate all societal impiety in these two issues--especially, since he's a celibate male and there's no chance he'll ever commit those acts of which he disapproves so strongly.
For the record--if you haven't guessed by now--I disagree with Fr. Miguel on these two issues. I'm a firm believer that the Church has a duty to embrace and support our same-gender oriented brothers and sisters and see that their rights are respected. As for abortion, I confess to being a bit ambivalent; nevertheless, I will get worked up about the rights of the unborn once I see the rest of society getting worked up over the rights of the post-born.
But it's not the issues with which I disagree with this good priest that bothered me. Rather, it was his lack of mention of the issues upon which there should be no controversy whatsoever:
Poverty is bad.
Oppression of anyone--racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.--for any reason is evil.
Violence--from war in Syria to gang shoot-outs in North Philly--grieves the heart of God.
We have only one Earth on which to live, and we insult God when we poison God's creation.
There are some who say that the Church has no business entering into political debate on these issues, but I feel that if our faith does not lead us to social action it is as useless and hypocritical as ashes on the forehead which, when washed off at the end of the mass, vanish down the drain and take any regret and guilt we might feel with them.
I want to know that it matters that I am a Christian. I think of Pastor Vernon Johns (whom I referenced in a previous post) who forfeited his congregation and career because he could not preach passively about eternal salvation and forgiveness while his fellow African Americans were being oppressed under the laws of segregation. I think of Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who left the safety of the U.S. to return to his native Germany to oppose Nazi tyranny and helped save the lives of countless Jewish citizens. He was ultimately arrested by the Gestapo and executed in the Flossenburg concentration camp. Bonhoeffer railed against what he called, "cheap grace"--a quiet acquiescence to Church dogma which accepted salvation by grace while ignoring human need and suffering. He wanted his response to Christ to be one which was truly sacrificial and loving.
I know that we are not all like Johns or Bonhoeffer, but as we journey through these forty days, we can make contact with our grief for our brothers and sisters and attempt to expunge our shame through determined actions. Anyone can be an advocate in our democracy. For those who don't believe in governmental solutions, there are always places to volunteer. And should you lack the energy for volunteerism, you can always donate your financial resources.
It's Lent. Let's be called into prayer--a prayer to discern those things about which we care dearly. Pray to discover our own mission as ambassadors for Christ. Let's be called into fasting and abstinence which will permit us to see how abundantly God has provided, and how much surplus wealth we all have to share with those in want. And let's be called to the the giving of alms. Jesus has taught us,
"For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Matthew 6:21)
Lent asks us to learn how to give our hearts, to learn how to love.