In defense of the corporal works of mercy, for crying out loud

A few weeks ago, a fellow complained that the winter concert at my kids’ school shouldn’t include any songs about Christmas, because here in New Hampshire, it’s cold, people are hungry, and some of them don’t even have a place to sleep at night. We should be focusing on them, he argued, not on Christmas.

That won a pretty strenuous eye roll from me. But I assumed he was so mistaken about Christmas because he is a secular guy. A secular person could easily believe that “Christmas” means only tinsel and lights, steaming hot chocolate, and extravagant electronic toys. Surely, I thought, any serious Christian could see the connection between the Christmas story and the desperate search for a warm, safe place to sleep in a cold, dark, world. It’s right there, right in every nativity scene you see.

Surely? Nope. It’s not only ignorant pagans who can’t see the connection between celebrating Christmas and caring for the needy. The Vatican nativity scene, which includes a large group of rather gaudy instructional figures acting out the corporal works of mercy, has been irritating many of my Catholic friends. One friend said that the corporal works display has “stolen Christmas” and “placed the emphasis on liberal social justice themes.”

Spoken like someone with a full belly and warm feet.

It’s very easy, when your body is already well-cared for, to dismiss the corporal works of mercy as some kind of SJW pocket sand used to distract Catholics from the actual faith. Try being naked, hungry, lonely, or dead, and get back to me about how open you are to hearing the Gospel. It’s hard to pray when you’re very hungry, and it’s really hard to pray when you’re hungry and someone who’s already eaten is chiding you for your spiritual flaws.

These tiresome “liberal social justice themes” come directly from the mouth of Jesus:

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Faith without works is dead. Even at Christmas!

Fr. Longenecker has a slightly more nuanced take on this idea that Christmas is no time to think about the corporal works of mercy. He says:

The biggest temptation in Christianity today is to make the church relevant by focusing on good works rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Hold up. “Good works rather than the Gospel”?  Because the two are . . . different? Opposed to each other? Mutually exclusive? I kept reading, because I thought I must be misunderstanding. He says:

We quietly forget the message of a lost and sinful humanity alienated from God and in need of redemption, and we substitute a religion of helping people, and making the world a better place.

He’s right, you know. This kind of thinking is just poison to the Church. Helping people, pshh. I know a guy who claimed that this pagan hooker was doing God’s work just because she let a couple of guys hide in her apartment.

Oh, um, that was St. James who said that.

[W]as not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?

26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

Faith without works is dead. Yes yes yes, even at Christmas.

Fr. Longenecker continues:

The corporal works of mercy are important, yes, and theologically it can be said that they flow directly from the nativity of Christ. Because Christ took corporeal form we are engaged in the corporal acts of mercy. Because he took a human body we care for the human bodies around us. Because he entered this world of matter–matter matters.

And before the Incarnation . . . matter didn’t matter? In the old testament, you could just let people starve and it was no biggie? In his haste to condemn people who care too much about pandas and global warming (yes, he specifically mentions both), Fr. L has stumbled into some choppy theological waters here. St. James also says that

Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? 23 And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”[d] And he was called the friend of God. 24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.

Serving God with your body is not some newfangled idea cooked up recently to put an extra polish on man’s relationship with God. Matter has always mattered. What we do is not some kind of also-ran. Faith and works go together. Even at Christmas.

Corporal works are not optional extras in your spiritual life, like nuts nestled in a cake. They are the bare minimum that we are required to do for each other, if we want to serve God. They are what we absolutely must do, if we can, before we can even dare to start putting our fingerprints on someone else’s soul. If we are not at least willing to perform corporal works of mercy for each other, then our spiritual lives are hollow.

Faith without works is dead. I’m not making this up.

But Fr. Longenecker continues:

So follow the logic. If everyone is going to make it to heaven in the end, what’s the point of all that talk about sin, hell, repentance and faith in Jesus Christ? None of that matters is everyone is going to heaven in the end.

And all that is left therefore of the Christian religion is to be kind, preach a sort of bland message that every cloud has a silver lining, look on the sunny side of life and let’s solve the problem of climate change if we can.

I can’t follow the logic, because it’s not there. When we give a homeless guy sandwich before we bring up the topic of confession, that’s the same as saying everyone goes to heaven? I read this four times, and I can’t make any sense of it.

Here’s that lame-ass social justice warrior St. James again:

1If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does itprofit? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

Look. I know there are some Catholic parishes that have become the Church of Christ without Christ. It’s all about fellowship and donuts and new playground equipment, and God doesn’t enter into it, except as a kind of ambient lighting designed to flatter aging skin. This is not what Christ died for. I get it. I’ve heard those sermons, where sin is largely imaginary, but if you can’t sleep, you can cut a check to Catholic Charities, amen.

But I’ve also been at parishes where there is nothing but talk about spiritual things, and if someone needs help — tough shit. Someone shows up at Mass wearing skanky jeans, because that’s what she’s got? Tough shit. Someone doesn’t have a car and can’t make it to the six required baptism preparation classes?  Tough shit. Someone smells bad, someone is weird and noisy, someone’s kid with autism makes the other parishioners uncomfortable? Again I say unto thee: Tough shit.

I have been at parishes that have acres and acres of crushed red velvet and every last inch of everything is covered with gold, but if you say you want a wheelchair ramp, they roll their eyes and cry poverty. I have been at parishes where they pride themselves on jam-packed perpetual Eucharistic adoration, but no one signs up to make a casserole for the single mom with a baby in NICU.

Dead. They are dead. Because faith without works is dead.

Fr. L complains that the corporal works of mercy

swamp the Nativity–over ride the Nativity and make it take second place. The good works are literally front and center. The nativity of Christ the Son of God and Son of Mary is in the background.

Does he have a point here? Is it appropriate for the corporal works of mercy to be set up in front of the creche?

It reminds me of something that happens routinely with my kids. I ask them to clear the table. No response. I ask them again to clear the table. Nothing. I ask in a slightly louder voice if someone will please clear the table. Still nothing.

So I start to yell. “CLEAR THE TABLE NOW!!!!” And everyone looks at me like I’m some kind of maniac. What is she making such a fuss about? Like clearing the table is the most important thing in the world all of a sudden! Sheesh, lady. Try and have some perspective!

Well, I would, if you would listen to me the first time.

Even the demons know what baby was born on Christmas morning. But do we know that, in His name, we’re obligated to care for each other? Every day, even Christmas day?

Faith without works is dead. If you don’t like being shouted at, then listen the first time.

***

Image: Coptic icon of Christ feeding the multitudes, author unknown, via Wikimedia Commons

17 thoughts on “In defense of the corporal works of mercy, for crying out loud”

  1. What about works without faith? That, too, is dead. I think that might be the point he was making.

    I think that if the Nativity had been larger and the works of mercy slightly smaller, it would have been a better representation. As it is, I could barely make out the Holy Family from the the rest of the display. I think what Fr. L is saying is although it is important to love thy neighbor by implementing the corporal works of mercy (and btw, don’t forget the spiritual works, which I don’t see anyone talking about), without faith in the Word Incarnate we would be like pagans or atheists doing likewise. I’m pretty sure he’s not diminishing the importance of the Corporal Works of Mercy. At least I didn’t see that in his article. What I saw was him viewing the Vatican nativity scene as diminishing the importance of God in our faith, and making more importance of works than faith. But maybe it’s just me that sees it that way.

  2. And, for what it’s worth, while Fr. L’s critique of the nativity’s ‘kitchiness ‘ is accurate, his theological interpretation is not: the birth of the Christchild is clearly front and center, with the star and the Angel both drawing the eye towards the Holy Family. It is quite a misreading to see this as Pelagian. Quite the opposite. The works of mercy are clearly the result of the Incarnation.

  3. I like Fr. L., but he seems to waver back and forth between the cracked and flawed (but comforting) conservatism of his youth, and the scary reality that we are a “Pilgrim Church”. Uncharted territory is disconcerting. I remember when it used to give me comfort that through some stroke of good luck, of being in the right place at the right time, I had somehow won some kind of cosmic lottery by being born into a Catholic family. But it began to gnaw at me that such an elite mindset didn’t mesh with God, revealed in the person of Jesus.

    I don’t know what the future holds for the untold billions who have lived and died on this earth, but something tells me that the mercy of God will dazzle us. Why would God incarnate become insignificant if there will be universal redemption? Fr. L makes this sound like it’s too easy, but clearly, having a human soul isn’t easy in the least, and we simply don’t know what kind of a journey the soul undertakes at death! Why can’t a jihadist travel a painful journey of revelation to understand what his brainwashed state led him to do? Who says that God can’t stretch the final nanosecond of a person who is dying, to seem like a lifetime?

    If we all lived like our own redemption was wrapped up in the redemption of the person next to us, and ALL of humanity, I think we would approach life differently, and start to see the sacred in that dirty homeless man instead of a possible member of the damned. An “every man for himself” mentality, and a “few souls that won the spiritual lottery” mentality is toxic.

  4. I am an ardent follower of Fr. Dwight’s blog, but somehow something happened along the way. He used to not write in a way similar to the article you quoted before. His previous articles had this sense of balance (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/standingonmyhead/the-synthesis-of-the-cross) that somehow I sense is getting lost in his more recent blog posts.

    And the most unfortunate thing is that I can’t comment on the same article you commented on because I need to give a subscription payment to comment on his blog. I don’t have any bad feelings towards Fr. Dwight nor any bad faith towards him. It’s just that I understand that the Internet today has become the worst place in the world to engage in sound, civil conversation, and sometimes you have to take desperate measures to ensure civility. But the downside is that I couldn’t remind him to sustain that balance that he previously had. That’s why I’m saying this in your combox because I don’t have any other possible medium to talk about this concern of mine.

  5. It’s true we must care for those in need. I suspect he is trying to call out the type of thinking that imagines people can give money or food or whatever and be doing God’s will and earning His favor even if their hearts are far from Him and they refuse His authority on any number of other matters. This does happen too, quite a bit in our culture actually. People think they can just be do gooders by deciding what counts to them and then throwing some cash at some cause, or volunteering etc. a number of celebrity charities come to mind, and also some “women priest” SJWs. The scriptures also say that our works are like filthy rags if we are far from God. I suppose it’s a case of both matter.

    1. Mary has written some really beautiful things. She is a good writer and she is intelligent, but she has her own journey.

      I don’t think any of us can get through this life without spiritual abuse.

      Simcha doesn’t simmer endlessly in her own juices. Wrath is a temptation for all of us. She’s no pushover for abuse either, but there’s a huge difference when a human being is willing to wrangle with a problem rather than throwing it away. Simcha doesn’t do that.

      My mother has provoked me endlessly, but I would never throw her away. An arm’s length has worked well in the past, but not to the point of rejection. There is absolutely no minimizing the gift of a mother, even when we want to jump up and down and scream.

      I was pretty much green fruit in my 30s too.

      God is patient, and kind. He is all forgiving. He doesn’t stop us if we decide to do something different, but anything apart from Him is Hell, even if we speak in the language of angels. –The reality of it gives me shivers.

  6. Secularism influence over Christianity’s work of charity and its disconnect from Christ is clearly going on whether you yell or don’t. Don’t be fooled by making good works your God and forgetting Christ, the reason for your goodness. At the same time, those who proclaim Christ and fall short of works have something waiting for them. In the end, it’s about Christ, the only person that matters.

    1. I have to disagree about the last sentence. Christ’s incarnation shows that we all matter. This is the logical extension of Matthew 25.

      1. You have to distinguish between God and us. If you don’t do this, you open yourself to self-determining what is good because our thoughts and aspirations are put equal with God’s thoughts and aspirations, and this is never true. We know precisely what is good because of the Incarnation and the revelation that came through Christ. Only God is good and this distinction must always stand. Read the saints and you’ll see this distinction continuously emphasized. And it’s precisely because of this distinction that we come into being because of God’s goodness.

        1. Again and still, I disagree. Christ didn’t incarnate to be a dilettante, but to show how our humanity can be redeemed and made whole. Christ came to point out that everyone–body and soul–have worth and are worth our care and attention. You make a distinction of Christ v. humanity, instead of Christ and humanity.

          1. You confuse two aspects: 1) The unique position that Christ plays actively in the salvation of the world, and it is uniquely His place. 2) Our participation in His salvific mission.

            I am not stating a Christ v. Humanity dichotomy. Your use of the word “dilettante” indicates this reading and it is completely off base and infused with great misunderstanding. Read about the kenosis and His humility and you’ll see your misunderstanding. You misread this. The only person exalted on the cross is Christ. Without Him, there is no cross and we don’t get to participate. This is the reality. We lose Christ, we lose everything even ourselves. It begins and ends with Him. Our worth is reflected to us by the second person of the Trinity, hence his Incarnation. We are not His equal, for He is God. So long as you cling onto a self-worth divorced of Christ you will neither understand this point nor see that only God is good.

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