by Sally Askew
Feb. 20, 2015
Shout loudly; don’t hold back; raise your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their crime, to the house of Jacob their sins. They seek me day after day, desiring knowledge of my ways like a nation that acted righteously, that didn’t abandon their God. They ask me for righteous judgments, wanting to be close to God.
“Why do we fast and you don’t see; why afflict ourselves and you don’t notice?” Yet on your fast day you do whatever you want, and oppress all your workers. You quarrel and brawl, and then you fast; you hit each other violently with your fists. You shouldn’t fast as you are doing today if you want to make your voice heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I choose, a day of self-affliction, of bending one’s head like a reed and of lying down in mourning clothing and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?Isn’t this the fast I choose: releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke, setting free the mistreated, and breaking every yoke? Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house,covering the naked when you see them, and not hiding from your own family?
Then your light will break out like the dawn, and you will be healed quickly. Your own righteousness will walk before you, and the Lord’s glory will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and God will say, “I’m here.”
If you remove the yoke from among you, the finger-pointing, the wicked speech; if you open your heart to the hungry, and provide abundantly for those who are afflicted, your light will shine in the darkness, and your gloom will be like the noon. The Lord will guide you continually and provide for you, even in parched places. He will rescue your bones. You will be like a watered garden, like a spring of water that won’t run dry.
They will rebuild ancient ruins on your account; the foundations of generations past you will restore. You will be called Mender of Broken Walls, Restorer of Livable Streets.
Denying oneself of normal pleasures is only a small part of participating in Lent. If the focus ends there, then our connection with one another and the Body of Christ is shallow. As Christians, we are obligated to treat one another with compassion. Not only must we try to understand how others feel but we must also take action, whenever possible, to help those who cannot help themselves. We call this form of active compassion, mercy.
Mercy allows us to assist others who are experiencing misfortune, both spiritually and physically. Merciful behaviors are described in the Book of Isaiah, where we are called to release those bound unjustly, setting free the oppressed. We must share our bread with the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, and not turn on our own (58:6-7). Isaiah is describing two kinds of mercy, corporal and spiritual. Corporal works of mercy are actions to help our neighbors who are physically in distress. They are: feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; clothe the naked; shelter the homeless; visit the sick; ransom the captive; and bury the dead.
We must reach out to help others physically, but our assistance can be both direct and indirect. Feeding the hungry can be accomplished by serving in a soup kitchen or by making a donation to help pay for the food. Sheltering the homeless can mean taking hurricane refugees into your home or donating furniture to a shelter. Either way, those in need have their minimal physical wants met through compassionate action for others.
Not only do we help others by practicing merciful actions, we also seek God’s mercy for ourselves through those actions. Luke wrote that we should produce good fruits as evidence of our repentance (3:8-11), sharing our possessions with those in need to show our desire for God’s merciful justice.
This spiritual transformation occurs when we reflect on what our actions mean and how we are open to the Spirit through our actions. The spiritual works of mercy give us that thoughtful dimension. There are physical actions attached to the spiritual works, but they also have a self-reflective faith dimension. While helping others, we must see Christ in both the giving and the receiving of mercy, for showing mercy is to receive God’s mercy (Matthew 5:7).
We are also told explicitly to forgive others so that we will be forgiven by God for our own offenses (Matthew 6:14-15). And prayer — unceasing prayer — unites us with the entire communion of saints through conversation with God. We pray to God for others and we, ourselves, are transformed by prayer. The virtue in the spiritual works of mercy is that we make a choice to perfect ourselves by practicing these works joyfully and fully so that we might seek salvation together.
Stop and pray for yourself, others whom you know by name, and all peoples that they may find comfort in deepening their prayer life during this season of Lent 2015.
(Adapted from an article in the Arkansas Catholic.)