Lent will soon be upon us, and we can take inspiration from the annual Lenten Message that Pope Francis has written for 2014. The Holy Father’s theme is taken from Saint Paul: Christ “became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (cf. 2 Cor 8:9).
When we hear the words “rich” and “poor,” we immediately think of material goods. During Lent in particular, we are asked to let go of some of what we have for the sake of those in need. Together with fasting and prayer, almsgiving is one of the spiritual pillars of making a good Lent.
The words of Saint Paul, however, go far deeper. Pope Francis reminds us that “God did not let our salvation drop down from heaven, like someone who gives alms from their abundance out of a sense of altruism and piety.” Rather, as Saint Paul says, we are saved by the “poverty” of Christ. What this means is that we are not saved by the emptying of Christ’s divine wallet, so to speak, but by the emptying of himself.
God “impoverished” himself of his divinity in Jesus, whose “wealth” the pope says, consisted in his “boundless confidence in God the Father, his constant trust, his desire always and only to do the Father’s will and give glory to him” to the point of death on a cross out of divine mercy for our sins.
The lesson for us at Lent is simply this, the pope says: “…there is only one real kind of poverty: not living as children of God and brothers and sisters in Christ.” To live as a child of God and brother or sister to others is not just about sharing human resources, but about a way of life in the church as a family of faith. As with Jesus, so with us, it involves a desire “always and only to do the Father’s will and give glory to him.”
There are many today who, actively or passively, eliminate God and religion from everything except church attendance on Sunday, for those who are so inclined. Many now believe that unaided human effort and ingenuity can remedy the ills of the world and even create a new and better world. However, without the truths of faith that have their origin in God, such a misguided secular belief will inevitably lead to coercion and tyranny, to misery and failure.
Pope Francis is a prophetic voice for the world’s poor, but in his Lenten message he makes a vital distinction between poverty and destitution. The poverty of Jesus is a Gospel precept, whereas destitution is “poverty without faith, without support, without hope.” The holy father speaks of the material destitution of those living in conditions opposed to human dignity; the moral destitution of slavery to vice and sin; and the spiritual destitution of those who turn away from God and reject his love. “If we think,” the holy father writes, “that we don’t need God who reaches out to us though Christ, because we believe we can make do on our own, we are headed for a fall. God alone can truly save and free us.”
The challenge of Lent is to bring healing to the world’s destitution – material, moral and spiritual – by making ourselves poor in the way that Christ was poor. We do this by practicing Lenten fasting, prayer and almsgiving; by performing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy listed in the Catechism; by humbling ourselves before God in the confessional to receive the riches of God’s mercy. When we do these and similar things, then, in the words of Pope Francis, “God’s wealth passes … invariably and exclusively through our personal and communal poverty, enlivened by the Spirit of Christ.”
May God bless all of us with a holy Lent, “so that by the poverty of Christ we might become rich.”