While the headline writers can debate whether the economy is in recovery or not, President Barack Obama’s chief economic adviser, Lawrence Summers, summed up what is the reality for most parishes this Lent: He recently described the current economic uptick as “a statistical recovery and a human recession.”
Despite the Wall Street bonuses and the climb in the stock market over the past year, many Americans are still suffering. In every parish, Catholics are unemployed, on food stamps, facing foreclosure or living under the threat that the next round of layoffs will include them.
The challenge for all of us this Lent, after a year and a half of this financial constriction, is that we are not feeling very Lenten. Or more to the emotional point, many Catholics have been giving up and going without for the past 18 months. How do we gear up for the next 40 days?
This Lent may be a challenge to focus on what is really important, and to practice the most difficult discipline of all — a sacrificial love for others.
The three classic Lenten observances are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. It is here that we need to resist passivity and act boldly to put our trust in the Lord.
First is prayer: Prayer is the one resource that every single one of us can draw on. This Lent, pray for our country and the many who are jobless. But also pray in support of a specific family you know who is struggling with unemployment. (Is there any of us who do not know at least one family in such straits?) Pray for those who are underemployed, for the young people who are entering a terrible job market, for those who lost jobs at the peak of their careers and cannot reasonably hope to replace their incomes.
Second is fasting: Fast with a purpose, offering up the discomfort for those who have little. We are told that 17 million children in 2009 lived in U.S. households where food was sometimes scarce, and some of these children may be in your parish. Offer up the discomfort for those in Haiti, who endure a desolation of resources and opportunities unlike anything that we suffer in this country. Feel the sting of hunger and remind ourselves of the stories in Scripture of the hungry and needy who could only beg for their daily bread.
Third is almsgiving: While Catholicism has a long tradition of encouraging almsgiving, today the act has an anonymous character that diminishes its full impact. We write checks to relief agencies, we text in our donations and press releases tally the millions of dollars raised. But the tradition of almsgiving involves more than the anonymous gift for an anonymous recipient. This Lent, parishes could perform a real service by encouraging active giving: Help specific families. Work on soup kitchens or sack lunch ministries. Volunteer at a women’s shelter.
The goal is not just to give, but to connect. Looking into the eyes of the person in need, a person very much like us, is an act of Christian charity, for in looking into those eyes, we do not simply see ourselves, but we see Christ himself.
That is what Lent is, after all: an encounter with Christ. We meet him in prayer. We meet him in the denial of our appetites and wants. We meet him in the eyes of those around us. Lent is leading us to Easter, to the Resurrection, the message of eternal hope, the triumph of life over death and the assurance that our kingdom has already been won for us.
This Lent, may we encounter a dying to self and a rising with Christ that is at the heart of this Lenten experience.
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