Faith on Friday: Preparing for Great Lent with Concrete and Personal Love

This coming Sunday is known in the Orthodox Church as the Sunday of the Last Judgment, or “Judgment Sunday.” It’s one of the Sundays leading up to the beginning of Great Lent. You can see the names of each Sunday in the Lenten and Paschal cycle here. You can read a (rather long) article by Fr. Thomas Hopko on Judgment Sunday, or listen to his podcast, here. He emphasizes that in the end, God will welcome those into His Kingdom based on this:

I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty; you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you took me in, you welcomed me. I was naked; you clothed me. I was sick, and you visited me. I was in prison; you came to me.

Sperindio Cagnola, Works of Mercy (Feed the hungry), 1514 -24, Paruzzaro, San Marcello Church - May, 2009

Sperindio Cagnola, Works of Mercy (Feed the hungry), 1514 -24, Paruzzaro, San Marcello Church – May, 2009

I love this, because almsgiving is the one part of the Lenten “tripod” (the other two parts being prayer and fasting) that I can most easily embrace. It’s an activity in which I interact with other human beings, rather than with myself (fasting) or with God (prayer).

hungryJust this past week I had two such interactions, and each one taught me something different. The first was with a man holding a sign at a busy intersection. The signed said “Hungry.” I quickly looked in my purse and found I had no cash. Then I remembered that I had a couple of “care packages” which our church had assembled, so I handed one out the window to the man.

“I’m so sorry I don’t have any cash right now,” I said. “But there are a few items in here that might help you.”

He smiled as he took the bag and said, “Oh, thank you ma’am.”

“I’m Susan.” I offered him my hand.

He took my hand and shook it gently. “I’m ___________.”

“Nice to meet you. Please pray for me.”

“And for me.”

It was a short interaction, but one with a very real human connection.

A few days later a woman approached my car as I was leaving a parking lot. She began to cry and share her story. I listened for a few minutes—not because my almsgiving would be based on her story, but just to show her I cared about the things she was saying—and then I handed her a $20 bill. Thinking she would respond the way the gentleman to whom I had given the care package did, I was surprised when, instead of thanking me, she began to beg for more money. I wasn’t sure what my response “should” be, but I finally told her that $20 would be enough for two nights at the Union Mission (which was only a few blocks away) or for about 8 meals there. She began to argue about needing money for the bus to get to the mission, and I reminded her that the $20 was enough for that, also. Sad that she seemed angry rather than thankful, I rolled up my window and drove away, feeling that I could not do enough for her. I’m still a bit frustrated about that encounter, but we are both broken human beings, and so our relations are often messy.

There’s an excerpt from Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s book, Great Lent, here. His words struck me:

When Christ comes to judge us, what will be the criterion of His judgment? The parable answers: love–not a mere humanitarian concern for abstract justice and the anonymous ‘poor’ but concrete and personal love for the human person, any human person, that God makes me encounter in my life.

Like the man and the woman I encountered on the streets this past week. I’m afraid I didn’t love the woman enough. Maybe I’ll do better next time.

Judgment Sunday is also called “Meatfare Sunday” because it’s the last day to eat meat as we enter the Lenten fast. (The following Sunday, Cheesefare Sunday, is the last day to eat dairy products.) For 40 days. Yes.

As you know if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, fasting is one part of our spiritual tradition that I struggle with. I know that it’s supposed to be a struggle—for those who embrace it—but my struggle has to do with why and whether or not to embrace it. If you want to catch up:

“Lent Light” from March, 2013

“Why Does it Have to Be So Damn Hard?” from November, 2012
“The Violent Bear It Away” from March, 2010

fasting

 

This week I’ve eaten lots of meat (much more than I normally do) and other rich foods. It’s not that I’m “storing up” the fat my body will need when/if I enter into the fast. It’s just that my husband had surgery a week ago, and people gave us food, and I also have cooked “comfort foods” for his recovery, like pot roast with rice and gravy, spaghetti with meat sauce. Today I’m actually looking forward to eating less. But I’m not sure it’s a spiritual feeling so much as a physical one. I feel fat and uncomfortable and I want to feel (and be) lighter. Maybe it’s all related. Maybe I will try to eat less meat this Lent. But more importantly, I’m going to try to lighten the burdens of the people around me.

 

kindnessI love Iris Dement’s song, “My Life.” (Watch her sing it here.)

I gave joy to my mother,

And I made my lover smile,

And I can give comfort to my friends when they’re hurting

And I can make it seem better for awhile.

 feed_the_hungry

 

As the Prophet Isaiah said:

Is this not the fast that I have chosen:

To loose the bonds of wickedness

To undo the heavy burdens,

To let the oppressed go free,

And that you break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

And that you bring to your home the poor who are cast out;

When you see the naked, that you cover him,

And not hide yourself from your own flesh?

Then your light shall break forth like the morning,

And your healing shall spring forth speedily,

And your righteousness shall be before you;

The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

 

Isaiah 58:6-8

 

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