As a young altar server, I looked forward to serving at the Holy Thursday Mass. My key role in the ceremony involved carrying a large metal bowl filled with water to the steps of the altar. The priest would then use this water to wash the feet of a row of parishioners seated in chairs. However, when the moment came for me to set the bowl on the step, I knocked it over with my foot, and the water spilled out over the altar. The priest took what was left of the water and patted the feet of the participants, while I headed to find some towels.
Lent is a time of taking up. It is a time to remind ourselves of the need to serve others. But none of us do these things perfectly, and my misstep at the altar was a good reminder of that for me. But Lenten spirituality also reminds us that, in spite of our mistakes, each of us can contribute to building up the Kingdom of God. In serving others we become more Christlike, and in becoming more Christlike we become better able to serve.
Being more Christlike
How can we be so sure that we’re treating others as Christ would want us to treat them? One set of guidelines can be found in the Corporal Works of Mercy. The Corporal Works of Mercy offer seven specific ways we can live out our call to service. This list includes concrete actions we can take to help alleviate the suffering and pain of others: feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; clothe the naked; harbor the harborless; visit the sick; ransom the captive; bury the dead. These actions find their origins in Matthew 25: 34-46. Jesus names the actions on his list and then says to his disciples: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
Teaching the Corporal Works of Mercy
The Corporal Works of Mercy seem pretty straightforward, at first: Either we’ve fed someone or not. Either we’ve visited someone in prison or we haven’t. But there are many kinds of hunger and many ways to feel imprisoned. We must help feed those who have no food, but also help those who hunger for friendship or a chance to be heard. We can visit inmates in jail, but we must also be conscious of those who feel trapped by loneliness or isolation or oppression.
When we look more deeply into these actions, they can seem a bit more daunting. Even doing one of these actions can take time, or talents, or money we don’t think we have. There is so much work to be done, and we might wonder whether we can help at all. But the season of Lent can help us to focus on the ways in which we can be of use to others and be more deliberate about our spiritual lives. Through prayer and fasting and almsgiving, we develop spiritual disciplines that allow us to empty ourselves of pride, and of a need for material goods, so that we might be filled with the Holy Spirit and the desire to put others first. When we take the time during Lent to center ourselves in God’s love, to sacrifice our time and talent and treasure so that others may live, we are working towards the creation of a more merciful world, one in which we not only readily forgive others, but ourselves, as well.
Helping the world be better
The Corporal Works of Mercy are not the only way to serve, of course, but they are a good start. Lent is a time of new beginnings, a chance to renew our commitment to giving and serving and of loving others. When we begin to put others first, we are humbling ourselves, as Christ did in washing the feet of the apostles. In such actions we admit that we are a small but valuable part of the world, we are reminded of God’s mercy, and we do our part to help cleanse the world of hatred and suffering.
Kerry Weber is an associate editor for America magazine and the author of Keeping the Faith: Prayers for College Students (Twenty-Third Publications).
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