Friday, March 11, 2011

Friday after Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-9 / Matthew 5:43-48; 6:1-4

Lent is not a season in which we are accustomed to think of gift-giving. Christmas, yes, but Lent, not so much. It is Christmas that, in the words of Ebenezer Scrooge's nephew Fred in Dickens' A Christmas Carol, is the only time ... when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely. In Lent, we are accustomed to think perhaps first of what we do not do, and we pledge ourselves to forms of fasting, penance, and self-denial. We may also, in fact we must, attend to what we do, as many commit themselves more fervently to spiritual reading, to the daily attendance of Mass, or to works of service at a local soup kitchen. Some may even commit themselves to acts of giving, and particularly to acts of donation to charity. Even so, this latter giving is generally far from the buoyant spirit of generosity that so gladdens cold hearts at the celebration of the Lord's birth.

However, without wishing to take away at all the distinctive character of gift-giving at Christmas, there is no reason that the almsgiving that makes up the third of the three pillars of Lent, along with fasting and prayer, should be any less marked by good cheer. The giving of almsdeeds, after all, is not meant merely to be some form of penance, the giving away to others what we might too easily spend on our own pleasures. Nor are almsdeeds meant to be the restoration in justice of what if due to the poor. While we ought to engage Lent through self-denial, and while the restoration in justice of what is owed to the poor is a prerequisite of the kind of virtue that Lent is meant to restore in us, even so, alsmdeeds are precisely the giving of things freely, the spending on others in generosity what is, in justice, lawfully ours. It is, or it ought to be, marked not by grim mourning over our own worldiness or our compromises with the unjust distribution of goods. Rather, it should come from that same infectious warmth of spirit that gladdens us so well in cold December, even without the ribbons, bright colored paper, and tinsel.

This is why it is so important that we not sound a trumpet before us when we give alms, why we take care that our alms may be in secret. Our attitude should be that of Christmas giving, of the happiness that comes from seeing that our gifts have made those who receive them happy, that we provide, even in the giving of needful things, a hint at the superabundant joy that is life in the risen Christ. This is why the fast proclaimed in Isaiah, the loosening of bands, the undoing of bundles, setting free the broken and breaking asunder their burdens, is not one more chore, one more act of penance we must do to atone for our sins. This is why feeding the hungry, welcoming the needy and harborless, and clothing the naked break forth not into weeping or judgment, but in the breaking forth of the morning light and the speedy rise of our health. If our Lord's words through his prophet and in the Son sound hard, even accusatory on our ears as they command of us almsdeeds, if they sound like the cold, sepulchral warnings of Jacob Marley, this is only so that we might be as Scrooge transformed on Christmas Day, cheerfully spreading our bounty on those in need without a word to them of their benefactor's name.

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