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

Making poor people pray

Many years ago, despite hard work, thrift, and a small family, we were poor.  As in no-heat-no-car-no-food poor.  And so I started traveling to a church which hosted weekly grocery nights, when needy people could browse over tables of expired dry goods, wilted produce, and drippy ice cream at cut-rate prices.  I remember the thrill of putting a true luxury, a box of crackers, into my bag, and feverishly calculating how many meals I could squeeze out of a single chicken breast.

That part of it was great.  But the part I didn’t like was in the beginning:  Before they opened the auditorium, they made us pray.

I hated that part.

Let me explain.  I pray.  I did pray at the time, I will always pray, and I will always be in favor of people praying, and in favor of encouraging other people to pray and to become closer to God.

But I am vehemently opposed to insisting that people suddenly start praying aloud, or giving intimate details about their spiritual life to a stranger, just because they happen to be vulnerable or in need.  Too many Christian ministries, including food pantries, crisis pregnancy centers, and homeless shelters, include mandatory prayer in their good works, and I think it ought to stop.

Well!  You may say.  Those who are vulnerable or in need are exactly the ones who need to hear about God!  Should we leave these poor souls in their misery?  Man does not live by bread alone.  Should we feed only the bodies of those in need, but leave their souls hungry?

Also:  what, should we be ashamed of our faith?  Should we hide our light under a bushel, cover over the name of Christ like those weasly Georgetown Jesuits?

The Good News is never out of place or inappropriate.  It’s always a good time to pray, and anyone who suggests otherwise is denying our Lord.

Okay, then.  How come you never insist that rich people pray?  When’s the last time you made it very clear to someone in a nice suit that he needs to start being thankful, out loud, right this minute?  Why is this on-command spirituality only standard practice for a guest who’s already on the ropes?

I know these good Christian folks had kind intentions.  They meant it like this:  we have a chance to do a corporal work of mercy—and while they’re here, we have the chance to share his glorious Good News with people.  So let’s be like the early Christians—let’s pray!  That’s all they meant.  And I was truly grateful for the food, and for the time they volunteered.

But let me tell you what messages I, as a bona fide wretched poor person, actually received:

1.  “We can see that you’re poor because of some spiritual failing, so let’s take care of that.”

2.  “Don’t you forget for a moment that we’re doing you a favor.  So before you get your dented box of Special K, let me see you bow your head.”

Now, there may have been someone at that grocery night who was smitten to the core—who needed to be there, needed to be forced to pray.  Maybe his life was changed forever by those mandatory prayers.

But I was there.  I guarantee you that thirty more people in that auditorium learned to connect the name of God with humiliation and intrusion.

Being poor means you never have a choice in anything.  Even while you’re grateful for bags of free clothes, boxes of food, and rides from volunteers, never having a choice about what to wear, what to eat, or when to come and go—it stings.  It makes you feel like crap.  Whether you’re poor because of bad luck and tough circumstances, or because of laziness and stupidity, being poor doesn’t make you sub-human.  It shouldn’t give other people an excuse to treat you like a child, even if they’re helping you.

So here is my suggestion to people who, God bless them, want to help the poor, and want to evangelize at the same time:  be quiet.  Put up lots of crosses and statues and Bible verses on the wall, wear T-shirts and medals—go nuts.  But don’t say a word, unless someone asks.  At the very most, extend an invitation:  “We are available to tell you about our faith—just let us know!” or “Don’t forget to check out our lending library, if you’re wondering why we’re here.”  Poor isn’t the same as stupid:  people notice when help always comes from someone who believes in God.

So please, never require someone to have a spiritual experience in exchange for your help.  The first thing about personal relationship, with God or with anyone else?  It’s not a quid pro quo.  It’s never mandatory.

***
Photo: Steven Depolo via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Blessed Are the Useless

homeless-845752_1280

This is the connection that we need to hear over and over again: we’re not here, in this world, to get ahead. We’re not here to prove how useful we are, and we’re not here to use other people. We’re not beloved by God because of how useful we are to Him! We’re useless. We’re beloved in our uselessness, because God is too big to fit into a simple equation of cost and benefit, debits and credits, loss and gain. We’re beloved because we exist, and that’s it. And if we want to meet God, we will find Him in service to others who can do nothing for us, because He came here in service to us, who can do nothing for Him.

Read the rest at the Register. 

***

Hot showers for the homeless, courtesy of St. Peter

St._Peters_Square_Fountain

Not one of the free showers offered. Don’t ask how I know, but bathing here is frowned upon.

It’s been many years since I was in Rome, but I remember my first impression of the city: it’s extremely beautiful, and it smells like poop. Part of that smell comes because Italians tend to have dogs, rather than children. And part of the smell comes because, at least when I was there, public bathrooms are few and far between, and they are coin operated. The phrase “eternal city” takes on a whole new meaning when you are penniless, on foot, and have nowhere to go for hour upon hour.

For a college sophomore spending a semester abroad, this discomfort had its exotic charm. For the thousands of homeless men and women who live in Rome, having nowhere to relieve themselves — and nowhere to shower after a day in city of grit and Mediterranean sunshine– is a daily reality which means nothing but more humiliation.

Read the rest at the Register.

At the Register: God and the Hungry Belly

[L]et’s make a distinction here. Christ and the saints exhort us to deny ourselves, to voluntarily turn away from the lure of physical comforts, to sell all we have to follow Him. He wants us to learn that we have a choice: to give ourselves over to the demands of the flesh, or to master the flesh and try, instead, to satisfy our spiritual hunger and thirst.

Christ and the saints did not exhort us to deny others, to prevent other people from enjoying physical comforts. He did not tell us to make the choice for other people. Instead, He told us, over and over and over again, to feed His sheep. And that’s what the saints did: they fed people. Yes, with plain old physical food, that poor people could eat with their bodily mouths and digest with their earthbound bellies.

Read the rest at the Register.