Ash Wednesday was this week. Christians around the world mark this day as the beginning of Lent. Lent is traditionally a season of sacrifice and fasting. This tradition is meant to remind us of the sacrifice made for us by God. The idea of “giving up” something for lent was not really part of my Lutheran upbringing. When I got to school and my Catholic friends asked me what I was giving up for lent, I was intrigued. I asked my mom if I, too, could give something up. “Of course,” was her reply. “What are you going to do without for the next six weeks?”
My friends and I discussed the possibilities. Some suggested candy, a standard sacrifice among my devout Catholic friends. Some of my more irreverent buddies suggested things like homework, brussels sprouts and liver. Those who had televisions gave up watching their favorite programs. Some gave up going to the movies. Some of the “giving up” was difficult and some was just plain silly.
I never really managed to stick to my “giving up” for all of Lent. Six weeks is a long time to a fourth grader. The symbolism and significance of sacrificing was missed by my developing religious convictions.
Pope Francis reminds us that sacrifice in itself is not meaningful. Our sacrifice and fasting must do something for others. The Pontiff admonishes us that with more regular and intense prayer during Lent, Christians are called to think of the needs of others, “interceding before God for the many situations of poverty and suffering” in the world. “Fasting makes sense if it really chips away at our security and, as a consequence, benefits someone else, if it helps us cultivate the style of the good Samaritan, who bent down to his brother in need and took care of him.” Fasting, he added, is a sign of becoming aware of and taking responsibility for injustice and oppression.
Pope Francis often admonishes the world to care for one another. He has said, “I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.” It is not a sacrifice to give up something you do not value or need, like giving up brussels sprouts, or giving away clothing that is too small, worn or outdated. Sacrifice is like the story of the woman in the Bible who gives away her last penny. Sacrifice is giving away your favorite coat before it is worn out and before you have a replacement. Sacrifice is sharing your food even if you might not have enough yourself.
When politicians in Washington propose cutting programs which provide food to pregnant women, infants and children, or for food stamps and for Medicaid, the sacrifices being asked of the poor are real. Without food assistance many will go hungry. Some will feed their children what they can afford, not what is good for them. The long term costs of poor nutrition both for the children and society as a whole are significant. Minimizing the cost of living increases for Social Security for many elderly means deciding which bills to pay. Co-payments on medical bills do not come out of the poor’s “mad” money. The result may be the sacrificing of adequate food in exchange for needed medical care. It may mean deciding whether the rent will be paid or if the children will have the shoes they need for school.
If we ask the nation’s wealthiest citizens to pay higher taxes, does it really result in a sacrifice? Will they have to downsize their home, give up a meal, or go without new shoes? Probably not.
One does not have to be an economist to understand that the impact of many of the proposed government cuts, especially to programs characterized as our “safety net” or “entitlements” may indeed be sacrificial for many Americans. Those who suggest that substantial cuts to the programs which feed, house, and clothe the poor, the elderly and the disabled are equivalent to the sacrifices as being asked of the wealthy are mistaken.
Giving up brussels sprouts, imported caviar, or the tax deduction for interest paid on one of multiple homes are not sacrifices. Giving up what one doesn’t need or want means nothing as a Lenten practice nor does it contribute to making our country stronger or to creating a world which is a better place to live.