By now, Catholics who have taken seriously Lent’s call to prayer and fasting are probably in a pretty good position to make “a sincere review of our life in light of the teachings of the Gospel” that Pope Benedict XVI noted is the purpose of these 40 days.
The Pope this year gives us what may appear to be an unusual theme to consider in our Lenten meditations: justice.
Why justice? Is the Pope asking us to be the kind of peace and justice activist who seems more preoccupied with the rights of workers than the rights of the unborn?
The Pope actually takes us in a different direction, and it is fruitful to consider: What is justice? Are we living justly? What does it take for us to be just human beings? His Message for Lent 2010 gives us some insight — and much food for thought.
The Holy Father takes as his starting point the classical definition of justice as “rendering to every man his due.” A good working definition, to be sure.
But Benedict raises a point: Just what is “due” each person? St. Augustine, he notes, reminds us that if we demand what is our due, we ought to fear the wrath of God for our desertion of him.
“What man needs most cannot be guaranteed to him by law,” the Pope writes. “In order to live life to the full, something more intimate is necessary that can be granted only as a gift: We could say that man lives by that love which only God can communicate since he created the human person in his image and likeness.”
The Holy Father goes on to quote the Gospel passage in which Christ asserts that it is not what comes from outside that makes a man impure but what comes from his heart. This, says Benedict, can be traced back to our first parents, who “replaced the logic of trusting in Love with the logic of suspicion and competition.” To this day, misguided thinkers place the blame for injustice outside themselves when its origins are actually in the human heart, “where the seeds are found of a mysterious cooperation with evil,” the Pope says.
What follows is an exploration of Hebrew thought on the meaning of justice, and here we begin to appreciate the culture into which Christ was born and from which the Gospel sprang. There is in Hebrew wisdom, Pope Benedict says, a “profound link” between faith and justice. In fact, there is a Hebrew word, sedaqah, that signifies both acceptance of God’s will and equity in relation to one’s neighbor. The two meanings are linked, says the Pope, because “giving to the poor for the Israelite is none other than restoring what is owed to God, who had pity on the misery of his people.”
Benedict sees a close relationship between two events in salvation history: It is no mere coincidence, he says, that the crossing of the Red Sea was closely followed by God’s “gift to Moses of the tablets of the Law on Mount Sinai.”
“God is attentive to the cry of the poor and in return asks to be listened to,” the Holy Father states. “He asks for justice towards the poor, the stranger, the slave. In order to enter into justice, it is thus necessary to leave that illusion of self-sufficiency, the profound state of closedness, which is the very origin of injustice. In other words, what is needed is an even deeper ‘exodus’ than that accomplished by God with Moses, a liberation of the heart, which the Law on its own is powerless to realize.”
But it doesn’t end there. St. Paul recognizes that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
“They are justified by his grace as a gift,” Paul says in his Letter to the Romans, “through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood.”
Benedict names this the “justice of the cross,” and it’s a natural theme for us to meditate upon as we approach the culmination of Lent: Good Friday. “Conversion to Christ, believing in the Gospel, ultimately means this: to exit the illusion of self-sufficiency in order to discover and accept one’s own need — the need of others and God, the need of his forgiveness and his friendship,” Benedict writes. “So we understand how faith is altogether different from a natural, good-feeling, obvious fact: Humility is required to accept that I need Another to free me from ‘what is mine,’ to give me gratuitously ‘what is his.’ This happens especially in the sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharist. Thanks to Christ’s action, we may enter into the ‘greatest’ justice, which is that of love.”
The Pope’s 2010 Lenten letter, then, is no call to go out and change the world by organizing rallies or registering voters or boycotting businesses. It is a recognition that the world will be changed only when individuals will allow themselves to be changed, to convert.
So much of this letter is surprising, but that is also true of our faith. It is certainly not merely hackneyed, old, predictable doctrine. It is, in fact, new — ever ancient and ever new. It is always new to anyone who examines his conscience at the end of a day and says, “Yes, Lord, I sinned here; I failed at this or that. But I know that tomorrow there is another chance to do things differently.” It is new to the penitent who enters a confessional and finds refreshment, knowing that he can always start again.
Let Lent, then, be “a sincere review of our life in light of the teachings of the Gospel” — with a fresh perspective from this Pope on the meaning of justice that we will find on Good Friday.