The Purpose of Lenten Alms Giving

There is a radical thought that has been making its way around my soul. In perspective, this is how the thought has developed and finds its conclusion. It has to do with the truth that Christmas and Easter are dependent on one another. Easter is the greatest feast in our faith – the revelation of its greatness beginning back in the Book of Genesis at the promise of a redeemer born of a woman. We know that the Son, born of Mary at Christmas, was the promised redeemer, through the events of Holy Week culminating in the Resurrection. All that Jesus proclaimed and lived eventually led to his arrest and death – it was so counter culture, so counter the lived faith of his people – especially the Religious Leaders. Attempts by Herod to kill Jesus in his first years of life, failed. The rage of Herod, threatened in his kingship, along with the rage of the Leaders of the Jews thirty some years later, stemmed from basically the same motives – threat to political power, to cultural position and to religious prestige.

Now with this background I want to challenge our feeding the secularization of the event of these two Solemnities of our faith which are actually one event – the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We begin our solemn
celebration of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus with the celebration of his birth – Christmas – God become man and dwelling among us. Let us remember that the announcement of Jesus’ birth upset the social equilibrium. For most people who ‘celebrate’ Christmas, whether religiously or secularly, it isn’t Christmas unless there are gifts and a big dinner –with decorations and a tree. Social security and plenitude is central to the feast. All of this has become the fabric of wintertime – a winter holiday celebration that brings big bucks into the economy. Society lives on an emotional high, or low depending on the state of their family. The economic preparation for the winter holiday begins in October reaching a frenzied pitch by December – parties, parties, parties – at home, at work and at church. The economy is given a boost, lending establishments flourish as usury has a hay day!   So much worldly expense for one who was born into poverty! And we, Christians are well ensconced in the economic frenzy!

We declare with high acclaim, our redemption – the redemption of the whole of creation – in the solemn celebration of His death and resurrection – Easter. The latter takes place almost entirely as a liturgical celebration within our faith life. And even though there is profound liturgical celebration – Easter like Christmas, has succumbed to secularization. In some ways it is even more horrific, because the secularization of Easter has been allowed to invade the fiber of our faith – the education of the young in the faith! For many, so called pragmatic reasons, we have allowed what were called and celebrated as ‘Easter holidays’ to become ‘spring break’. When this ‘spring break’ occurs is decided upon by the public education sector.

We run our catholic education – with 50% support from the government. Why do we succumb to the secularization of Easter? Is it fear of losing the support?
If the students are not in class for the holiest week in our lived faith, then Holy Week is up for grabs, jostling for importance against the price of airline tickets, holiday resorts and the like. Are our churches packed with families coming to celebrate the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday? No! Why not!
Are whole families present for Good Friday Liturgy? No! Some will say – “We have to put in an extra celebration.” If we were truly living Holy Week we would have to put in 3 or 4 celebrations!
Do believers understand that Holy Week is actually one continuous celebration, lasting for 3 days embracing every human emotion and spiritual challenge to love, mercy and forgiveness!? – it is heaven on earth in indescribable reality! Why are we not proclaiming this truth in our lived faith?

The teachings of Jesus, both verbally and in his lived experiences, give us the guide for the daily living of our faith. We find the main teachings in the Sermon on the Mount which of course includes the Beatitudes, and within the Last Supper Discourse and the Last Judgement. All of these teachings summarize Jesus’ parables, and responses to various situations and events. The teachings have their great exclamation point in the total gift of love, lived out in his final Passover week, culminating in the Cross and Resurrection.
Has the extraordinary become so ordinary to us that it is okay to call it ‘spring break’. Christmas is the ‘holiday season’.

The birth, death and resurrection of Jesus is the ground upon which our lived faith is planted. How is the birth, the death and resurrection of Jesus being lived? The word ‘lived’ encompasses the reality of daily life within the world –that is the living described in Acts, – “See how these Christians love one another” (Acts 4), and more than just one another – everyone – take the story of the Good Samaritan as an example. And since Christmas and Easter are the bookends of our faith, they are holding up the lived faith 365 days of the year!

There seems to have developed a perception that we have fulfilled the call to recognize the poverty of Jesus, at his birth by giving out ‘hampers’ to some needy amongst us – given out sometime during advent. And this suffices looking after the needy in our faith and secular community. Jesus’ whole life was lived in poverty! He died in poverty – material, and communal.

We have somehow deduced that the poor among us should find deep thanksgiving within their hearts for eleven months (from Christmas to Christmas) – and if they cannot, or even if they can, then they should take a deep breath, put on a smile, try hard not to become red in the face, swallow deeply, and go to the food bank in sickness and in health. And, when the collection basket comes around on Sunday, try not to turn red in the face as they pass it on.

In all of this we forget Jesus’ simple words to the Disciples who were aware of the need to feed the crowd. They wanted to send them away – maybe they could find a store, maybe they had some money to buy bread. Jesus’ response was very radical! It is very rarely referred to in the living out of our daily faith!

Jesus’ response was “Feed them yourself!” Yes, the disciples were dumb struck! It could only be accomplished with prayer and a profound personal /communal faith relationship with Jesus, and with each other.

In other words it demanded something very much ‘other’, than our normal assessment of how to do the works of God! The disciples had to take from very meagre supplies, forget about themselves, and believe that the Lord loved them, and all the others, in a very unusual way. Common sense – whatever that is – dictates what the disciples suggested. In our vernacular it would be – ‘send them to the food bank’. Common sense says that one packs extra for a journey – not trusting that you will be given what you ‘need’! Not the directives of Jesus to take nothing extra with you. Common sense says that you make sure that you are going to be welcomed at your destination, with a roof over your head. Again, not the directives of Jesus about staying wherever you are welcomed, eat whatever you are given, move on when you are not welcomed. Common sense does not say that “Your light will shine” when “you deprive yourself” for the hungry, homeless, those in darkness – not only at Christmas but everyday of your life.(Is 58) Commonsense does not say that in a life of constant giving your internal “Wound will heal over”, and “your waters will never run dry”. (Is 58) The same chapter warns that you will feel like a ‘scorched land’, but “the lord will always guide you and satisfy your needs”. And, are we ever good at rationalizing this! Somehow, we tend to apply this verse, about feeling the scorching heat of the reality of living in faith and trust, to those who are living daily on the brink of having nothing. Common sense says that the teachings of Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount, the Last supper discourse, and the Last Judgement passage are all crazy, unlivable teachings – making no sound economical sense for a progress, secure society.

Lent is forty days of telling us to turn around – ‘Convert’ – ‘change’. When one delves into all the Readings for the season of Lent, there is a radical challenge being issued to all facets of our daily life, and our secular values.   Isaiah 58 is often used, as are other passages giving the same message. So, why then do we not heed the message of Jesus’ total self giving to death, – forgetting himself, giving his all, by taking up our cross, and the cross of all who suffer want and need – as the First community of Christians did – and as the early Father’s of the Church tell us to do? Why do we not hear the call for a profound heartfelt response to such an all pervasive, wrenching act of self-giving love?

Why do we not respond in utter Mercy to the most merciful act of Jesus – by attempting to feed and clothe the naked within our midst at Easter!? This is the end and beginning of all alms giving! It is our Christian call to live the Beatitudes, to take to heart the Last Judgement (Mt. 25), and thus strive to build a just world. The word ‘just’ scripturally means ‘to be at rights with God’.

If we cannot do this within our local community of faith where we rub hearts, minds, and bodies in a family of faith, with Jesus and with one another, then, we are missing the very personal, familial question of Jesus in the agony in the garden – “Are you sleeping? Can you not watch with me one hour?” Jesus uttered this to his community of apostles! Jesus is carrying the pain of sin with all of the division, isolation, fear, and selfishness that it spawns – even amongst those whom He dearly loves! The pain is worse when it is inflicted by those who are ‘friends’, fellow members in the family of faith. We do the same when we turn aside from those suffering among us – especially at Easter. We probably are saying something to the effect – “After all, we did it at Christmas, so why do we have to do it again!” We are missing the point! The meal of all meals to be celebrated, happened in the Triduum! It is the meal that we are called to live in communal thanksgiving! It was prefigured at the multiplication of the loaves. The powerful, merciful, soul searching liturgies of Holy Week should be propelling us out to all around us! It is our way of taking to heart, and living the ‘washing of the feet’, becoming ‘one’ in love as the Father and Jesus are one! To go out to our brothers and sisters in need at this time of ultimate merciful love is the living expression that we know that we have been forgiven, been reborn! It is announcing new life, washed in the Blood of the Lamb; new hope – He is alive! We have seen his glory! (John 1:14) Imagine spreading this message at Easter. Such a message would go out to all the world.

Jesus has called together all of his loved ones to journey with him through the Passover from worldly sin, by spilled blood and tears, torn flesh, mockery and death – to new life – renewed love, mercy, forgiveness only accomplished by the values He lived. These values had little to do with feeling good, with mushy feelings that come with being able to count hampers given out. Jesus fed us with his very flesh and blood during this Triduum week – Jesus who had nowhere to lay his head – not only at his birth, but throughout his life! The one place he had to lay his head in life, was on the cross as he was nailed to it! Then there was no pillow! Only a crown of thorns! And, this pillow of thorns came the day after teaching us – imploring us at the Last Supper discourse – to live as one, to care for one another, wash one another’s feet, to be friends with one another! Why do we not live this in a very dramatic, outgoing, visible, physically demanding way at our Passover to new life, celebrated every Easter? It is not a time to take a ‘spring break’ it is a time to live radically all that Jesus taught and did. It is the time for profound mercy that can only be lived in a profound loving, faith relationship with Jesus – spilling over into loving him within all his friends! This is very counter culture – not caught up in what has become a secular hype of Christmas. At Easter our faith is calling us to respond to the call given to the rich young man – “If you would be perfect – go sell all your belongs, give the proceeds to the poor – and then come follow me!”   Follow him where? Follow him to the Cross! Lived daily!

Easter is the time to evaluate our living faith in the face of the crowds, and those lost in the crowd. Are we living our life to have two, or multiple tunics; numerous sandals, the best possible ‘haversacks’ designed with numerous pockets for all types of conceivable items, cards to all the best dining spots at home, and around the world, assured always of the best of dining (in the face of knowing deep within that the best dining is Jesus himself); calling cards to Hotels, motels, resorts and the like – living esteem with the Jones. And of course bank cards are a must. They assure that we never have to touch, or look upon the unclean – or be touched by them! Is Easter bringing us to the point within, that yearns to daily meet the face of Jesus in the vacant faces of those who intellectually, spiritually and psychologically have little or no foundational meaning in their lives – those who have become cold, calculating, cruel and consumed by fear? – This is the crowd that Jesus wept over because they were like sheep without a shepherd! Are we a part of the crowd, or a part of its healing?

In worldly terms – how utterly simple is our saviours call! It is a prophetic call to proclaim the loving, merciful call of Jesus given to everyone, everywhere. And, he had a preferential love of the poor, as nearly all of his teachings proclaimed. So, again the question begs to be answered – where is our lived, merciful love of Jesus that he dramatically proclaimed at Easter? Why are we not visually living it within our family of faith so that it over flows into our society. What a way to spend the celebration of Easter for 50 days! Our whole preparation for Easter is supposed to entail prayer and alms giving. Surely the alms giving is not to refurbish churches, or enrich parish coffers. Surely these things will come if that is what the Lord wants. And if it is what He wants, the fulfillment of these plans will come as a result of our responding to the needs of his people. It is in giving that we receive. Bread caste on the waters, comes back to us in the tide of love. Building bigger houses and barns is the work of fools. Lk 12:16-21)  Jesus does not care where the tabernacle is in the church, or whether it is within the church, or in an outside chapel. Such things are as changeable as whims and traditions. He does care that we are his living, loving, giving, caring tabernacle – church! He does care that we are willing to carry him within us, as we carry his cross in the day to day dying in love for him, and his lost and forgotten sheep. He does care that we hold the mangled, maimed people of his world, personally loving them with His love flowing from us – from hearts that were stone – that have been turned to flesh by his redemptive love. It is this daily living and giving that is the alms giving of Lent. Let us learn from his first followers to love one another, to look after the physical needs of one another, to share all that we have with one another – since what we have is all gift! This is the sign that we have repented, are forgiven, are converted, have been reformed by the 40 days with him in the desert. Not just an esoteric giving, but a living reality – bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, care for the sick, homes for the homeless, welcome for the stranger, forgiveness for the sinner – all right within our midst within the community of faith.  This is true evangelisation. This is the shining of Easter from the depth of our being – from the poverty within, and its resultant simplicity within our lives. Such living is responding to the designation that Jesus gave us – “friends”! Not a passive word, but a designation of a mission to be lived.

We know by the Agony in the Garden that He expected his friends to be near, to be one with him in his time of suffering, and fear, as he faced the horrors present in life. He showed us how to reach out as he journeyed with the lost, fear filled disciples on the road to Emmaus. The disciples lived this friendship in the first years of the church. Not easy years. They were despised by the Jews, looked at with fear by the Romans, and were ultimately persecuted because their living love resulted in growth in numbers, becoming a political threat.   Our dynamic living of Easter has hardly reached this point yet! But if we radically take on the care of those in our very midst, within each and every parish, we will be winning the hearts and minds of people. By such living, we will then have opened our minds and hearts to prophetically respond to the challenge of euthanasia and abortion. By giving we will learn how love works – how it gives life – by being willing to die in love.

Are we prepared for this lived alms giving, reaching out to touch one another from our meagre personal resources – knowing that the miracle of God’s love will provide – basketsful left over, and hearts that are radiant because our light is shining. (Is. 58) “And none of their members was in want”. (Acts 4:34) Yes, they were persecuted for their lived faith – and the faith grew and spread! The blood of the martyrs, mingled with the blood of Jesus, bringing life.

This is the radical faith that our prayer and alms giving is calling us to. At this very moment, the very life blood of our country is calling us to this radical life, lived daily, that we may be strong in faith, and wise in the Holy Spirit to meet the challenge of life before us.

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