EPPN Lenten Series: Engaging Poverty at Home and Around the World

Into paradise may the angels lead you,
At your coming, may the martyrs receive you
And lead you to the holy city, the new and eternal Jerusalem.
May the choirs of angels receive you and lead you to the bosom of Abraham,
And with Lazarus, once poor, may you have life everlasting.

On Ash Wednesday, as we begin our journey through Lent, the Church invites us to consider our inescapable captivity to death.  “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The Presiding Bishop, in her Lenten message to the Church, describes the “provocative experience” of imposing ashes on the heads of toddlers with those words, and I recall a parish priest of mine, some years ago, preaching about the cauldron of his own emotions – including very real anger at God – as he placed ashes on the foreheads of his own young children and reminded them that they will die.  Lent always begins with a jarring reminder that each of us is mortal, formed of the dust, and that none of us can escape death.

Except, of course, that we can.  

Lent, as we know, has an endpoint, and that endpoint is the furnace at the very center of our faith: the paradox that, though human existence is enmeshed with death at every turn and appears to crash into the finality of death at the conclusion of every life, the true end of the story is something else entirely.   The true destiny God intends for us is quite the opposite of death.  “I have come that they might have life, and might have it abundantly,” Jesus says (John 10), and Lent is all about how the Church draws us into the very center of that desire in the heart of God.   Abundant life is God’s intent for us, both for eternity and, paradoxically, for the here and now.  Lent is about how we pivot from the path we’re on – the path of all human flesh that runs through, and ends in, the valley of the shadow of death – and onto the path that is God’s true destiny for us.

To pivot, of course, we must first realize the need to pivot.  We must realize the futility of our path, and the darkness to which it eventually leads us.  “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.”   

The word for this pivot is “repentance.”  Though we tend to associate repentance with sorrow for our sins, and though this might be a part of it, repentance literally means turning from one course of action – a course of hurt, brokenness, and sin – and choosing to walk with joy into another.  Repentance is anything but sorrowful! I wrote a little bit about this on Ash Wednesday two years ago.  Today I’d like to consider the specific pivot between death and life that Lent challenges us to make, indeed the contrast between death and life that Lent challenges us to see.   What is the difference between a life bound up in the winter of death (the sort of life which, if I am honest with myself, I live far too much of the time) and a life that is bound up in the springtime of resurrection?   What are the implications of being drawn by Lent into an Easter existence?

On this particular Ash Wednesday, I find my mind dwelling – because of death – on the short verse printed at the beginning of this reflection.  Popularly called In Paradisum after the first two words of the Latin original, the five brief lines might best be known today because of the many choral arrangements to which composers have set them over the course of centuries.  But their significance is far more than musical; indeed, the reason so many choral settings exist for these lines is that the historic liturgy of the Western Church mandated their use so frequently.  They were the words that the Church prescribed to be sung at every funeral at the point at which the body of the dead is borne from the church to its final resting place.   They were the final words prayed over the deceased in the church building, and the final words that the loved ones of the deceased were to hear the church pray about him or her.

That is, to say, they were fairly important words in the historic liturgy of the Church.  The Church intended us to really listen to them.

I find that act of listening to them to be a deeply jarring experience, at least as jarring as the Ash Wednesday reminder that I am dust.   Perhaps that was the point; I am not sure.   What I am sure of is that, notwithstanding the loveliness of the first four lines – which speak beautifully of the economy of heaven: the angels, the martyrs, and the patriarchs who will not just be there when I arrive, but who will accompany me – the fifth and final line is both curious and ultimately pretty unsettling.  Again, I suspect that might be the point.  

There are several reasons the last line is curious to me.  The first is that, unlike the other figures named in the verse, Lazarus is a fictional character.   This is not Lazarus, the close friend of Jesus and the brother of Mary and Martha whose resurrection from the dead, in the Gospel of John, prefigures Jesus’s own Resurrection and, in turn, our own.  (The inclusion of that Lazarus in this verse might make some sense!)  The Lazarus we are given here, however, is the fictional Lazarus who appears as a character in one of Jesus’s parables (Luke 16: 19-31).

You likely remember it.  It’s not, at its core, a story about Lazarus at all.  It’s a story about a rich man, whose name Jesus never tells us, who spends his life ignoring the poor – placing a chasm between himself and the poor — and, as a consequence, has to live with that chasm in eternity.  The twist, of course, is that, in the eternal kingdom, Lazarus lives in heaven at the side of Abraham while the rich man dwells in hell, unable to cross the chasm of his own making between himself and Lazarus (and, in turn, between himself and God).

The story is fundamentally about the rich man and the destiny of his soul.   So why does the Church’s funeral liturgy, in a short verse about heaven, name Lazarus in connection with our own prayer for salvation?  And why does the verse mention nothing about Lazarus except that he was “once poor”?  (Or, in another English translation that may be closer to the Latin original, that Lazarus is no longer poor).  The verse does not pray that “with the souls of the just, may you have life everlasting,” or that “with the martyrs, no longer suffering, may you have life everlasting.”  It prays that with Lazarus, who on earth was poor, may we have life everlasting.  

All I can take from this is that the Church is trying to tell me that the destiny of my soul is tied to the destiny of Lazarus. Somehow, Lazarus’s poverty connects with my own salvation. And I don’t mean Lazarus as a generic representation of “the poor.” The fact that Jesus gave a name to Lazarus – but not to the rich man, the putative subject of the parable – is perhaps the most telling part of the story. In our world – the present reality whose terminus, for everyone, is death – the names of the rich are known throughout the world.   Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, or (considerably more regrettably) Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, are recognizable the world over. But the Lazaruses of the world, the poor and the vulnerable, largely are anonymous to most of us. They are largely anonymous to me.  (I pray each morning for those whom I would otherwise neglect to notice, but I am not entirely confident that my act of prayer makes me notice them any more than I otherwise would).

I remember a now-deceased white South African bishop once teaching me about the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.  He used an illustration from apartheid-era South Africa to convey the way in which “namelessness” in our world illustrates the apparent neglect of the larger community.  So severe was the chasm between the powerful of apartheid South Africa (whites, in that case) and the vulnerable (non-whites) that even the formal practice of newspaper writing on daily life codified this namelessness.  For example, if reporting on a car accident involving both whites and non-whites, the newspaper account might read: “Mr. and Mrs. Robert White of Pretoria, along with three blacks, were killed in a high-speed collision.”   It sounds ghastly to our ears, but – if we think it through – it really simply reflects the universal reality that was as true in the time Jesus told his parable as it is today.  The rich, even if they’ve done nothing of particular note, are treated as valuable, while the poor are treated as expendable and utterly anonymous.

But, in the Divine economy, everything is reversed.  God sees the poor clearly and calls them each by name.  As the parable instructs us by placing Lazarus at God’s side in the bosom of Abraham, God sees the poor as particularly close to himself.  I am confident that God loves the rich as much as the poor – and knows each of their names as well – but I fear that the point of Jesus’ parable is that, the richer we become, the more obstructions we are in danger of placing between ourselves and God’s sight line to us.  God perseveres in seeing around those obstructions, I am confident, but we may be unable to do the same.   By contrast, God is so close to the poor – so deeply does God dwell in the Lazaruses of the world, and they in God – that all I have to really do to see God is to see Lazarus.   When I ignore Lazarus, however, when I can’t see him as he moves in and out of the periphery of my life, I also can’t see God.   And God, I think, struggles to see me.

You see, in the end, it is not Lazarus who needs the rich man.  Lazarus does not truly need the crumbs from the rich man’s table.  It is the rich man who needs Lazarus.  The rich man’s salvation utterly depends on Lazarus, but the reverse is not true.  Let me repeat this with a slightly different tack: Lazarus’s salvation does not depend on me at all, but my salvation depends on Lazarus.  If I want the journey of my life to be headed toward the One who is the author and master of all life, I must – I simply must – walk the path that Lazarus walks, with Lazarus.   I must repent of the path I walk, which is the path through the valley of the shadow of death, and pivot to the path Jesus walks, on which the tomb is merely a stop along the way toward something greater.    The path of Jesus is the path of Lazarus.

Almsgiving for the poor is, of course, a traditional Lenten discipline alongside prayer and fasting.   The reason for this – the story of Lazarus reminds us – is that the act of almsgiving as a Lenten discipline is not fundamentally for the sake of those to whom I give alms.  It is for my own sake.  The salvation of the poor ultimately has very little to do with me, but my salvation has everything to do with the poor.  That’s why the traditional funeral liturgy finds its climax in a prayer about Lazarus.  If I am not in relationship with the poor, I am not in relationship with God.  If I am not in relationship with the poor, I have not successfully made the Lenten pivot from the path of death to the path of life.

In the coming weeks, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society will offer a six-part Lenten series on “Engaging Poverty at Home and Around the World.”  We’ve carefully chosen the title.  You’ll note that it’s not “fighting poverty” or “eradicating poverty.”  It’s “engaging poverty,” that is, being in relationship with, and walking alongside, those who are poor and who – like Lazarus – have names.

The prophet Isaiah, in a passage appointed for the Old Testament Lesson on Ash Wednesday, writes of God speaking to a wayward Israel, his chosen people, telling them that, while their ways may seem to their eyes to be obedient to his will, in fact, they’re missing the point entirely:

Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.  Day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinances of their God. (Isaiah 58)

Instead of empty religious devotion, God tells Israel, find your relationship with me in the poor and the vulnerable:  

If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom shall be like noonday…your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

This is our first Lenten glimpse of resurrection!  This is our first glimmer of what lies behind the Lenten array and the veils on statues and crucifixes traditionally associated with the season.   This is our first sight of spring at the end of the long winter of our captivity in the tomb.  The stakes of our repentance, the stakes of our finding of God in the poor, is nothing less than the raising up of dead generations!  Of our own lives and souls!   

I pray, on this Ash Wednesday, that our Lenten series on “Engaging Poverty” might be of value in your own journey toward Easter.   Perhaps, as you seek to engage poverty in your own community and life, you might find a partner in the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society.  (We are certainly willing!)  But my prayer is simpler than that.   My prayer is that, together, we might undergo conversion as we uncover the pathway of the One who is as truly and corporeally incarnate in every Lazarus of the world as he is in the bread and wine of the Eucharist or the waters of Baptism.  With Lazarus, once poor, may we have life everlasting.

Eternal Lord of love, behold your Church
walking once more the pilgrim ways of Lent.

This is the first installment of the Episcopal Public Policy Network’s 2015 Lenten Series: “Engagaging Poverty at Home and Around the World.” To receive these reflections to your inbox each Wednesday of Lent, sign up here.