When asked about the kind of Church he intended to shepherd, Pope Francis longed for a “Church that is poor and for the poor.” Christianity has long had a special relationship with the poor. Christianity mostly began as a religion of poor farmers and fishermen, and there has been no renewal movement in the Church worthy of the name that did not cause a revitalization of the spirit of Christian poverty.
Important as this concept is, it is often a pointless cliché thrown around by Christians. When it is developed further, poverty is strictly discussed from a material sense, that is, a Christian’s identity should only be with those who are materially poor. The Propers of the Third Sunday of Lent offer a useful corrective for this empty poverty, and help us to rediscover the true understanding of poverty.
The first aspect of a Christian poverty is discussed in the Introit, which portrays a soul continuously looking to God, due to the fact he is “alone and poor.” How do we reconcile this understanding with the communal nature of Christianity, where we are all part of the Body of Christ? The solitude is in the fact we have no savior but God. Those rich in the world have vast wealth, resources, and creature comforts, various things that can either take away or numb the pain. The Christian realizes that all of these things cannot ultimately provide salvation, so even if they posses them, they do not rely on them. In displays of penance we frequently cast off these trappings as a visible reminder we have to adopt this mentality. Lent is one of those times we are called to do this.
Another aspect of Christian poverty comes from the collect, which tells us that God looks upon and defends “the desires of the humble.” What are the desires of the humble? Often humility is understood in today’s culture as simply that of being self-deprecating, never taking credit for your talents and the like. While this at times is humility, the true nature of humility is far deeper. At the root of humility is to “walk in love” according to the Epistle. This love is personified by Jesus Christ, who sacrifices Himself for the sins of others, and we are called to do likewise. This sacrifice is performed by abstaining from things such as fornication, drunkenness, jealousy, gossip, etc. When we consider all of these sins, they are selfish in nature. Fornication happens because individual pleasure is desired above God’s will for marriage to be a sacred union geared towards children. While jealousy is self-evident, even gossip is a form of selfishness, as we talk about whatever we wish, whether or not such talk is actually edifying. The truly humble is not so much as self-deprecating as he is self-sacrificial. When pressed, Christ never denied who he was, and likewise, we Christians should never deny our possession of his truth, nor of its power in transforming the culture out of some faux humility of “not wanting to impose our beliefs upon others.” By fleeing ways of the world, by this very act we are meant to put our beliefs upon others. We are meant to show that there is more to this world than selfishness.
A third trait of Christian poverty is discussed in the Postcommunion, where after asking for absolution from our sins, we are “granted to be sharers in so great a mystery.” It is here that a true poverty can be understood. We abstain from all these selfish worldly things because ultimately, we are promised something far greater. Abraham was called to forsake a life of wealth and comfort, and relocate to a foreign land where everything was uncertain. All he knew is God promised to reveal His plan in due time. Though rich, Abraham embraced this form of poverty (to leave his land would also mean leaving most of his riches and ability to generate further income) because, according to the Hebrew writer, he looked for “a city whose foundation and builder was God.” (Hebrews 11:10) We give up the worldly pleasures, even those which are in and of themselves okay, because we are promised something even greater. This is why the truly poor always look to God, as we are continually waiting on something better.
This is why a truly Christian view of poverty has always been central to any renewal, whether it be our spiritual renewal this Lent, or the renewal of the entire Church. When this view is not present, we become far too comfortable with the world. If we are comfortable with the world, what is the point of evangelization? Why does someone need to be saved from a state of affairs that really isn’t that big of a problem? In a seeming paradox, the wealthiest national churches (especially in Europe) are also where evangelization and mission is non-existent. Even when we look upon the more local level, the fastest growing communities in Catholicism are those who want deep reform and renewal for the Church. If you’re comfortable with the way things are, are you really going to push for change? By helping us develop a true sense of poverty, Lent is meant to drive us towards deep renewal and change, starting with ourselves, and then with the entire Church.