First and foremost, clearly, please remember the poor, so that what you withhold from yourselves by living more sparingly, you may deposit in the treasury of heaven. Let the hungry Christ receive what the fasting Christian receives less of. Let the self-denial of one who undertakes it willingly become the support of the one who has nothing. Let the voluntary want of the person who has plenty become the needed plenty of the person in want.
(St. Augustine, Sermon 210)
During the Lenten season, we are encouraged to enter a time of fasting and penitence as we remember the trials of the Christ and anticipate Holy Week. Traditionally, Christians perceive this time as a marriage of three virtues: fasting, prayer, and charity. Together, these practices prepare the community’s heart for reconciliation with God.
In the above excerpt from St. Augustine’s famous sermon, we see a petition to charity directly connected to the “treasury of heaven.” This theme of laying up heavenly stores is found continually in the gospels, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount message (Matt 6) to his imperative to the rich man: “give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven” (Mark 10:17). Alms as a complement to fasting stretches across antiquity in both Christianity and Judaism. Alms, as an extension of God’s hand, allows us to feed not just the poor, but as Augustine says, Christ himself.
However, in this equation, “the poor” serve as conduits of divine favor, as the key to our heavenly treasure. We forget that in order to “store heavenly treasures,” we use the category of the poor for our own personal spiritual benefit. The question of “who are these poor ” escapes our purview. The role these “poor” play in our theological reflection is overshadowed by our union with Christ.
Today on Ash Wednesday, I remember the ash is a symbol of my privilege. Lent is more than reflecting on my personal sins, but on recognizing the privilege I carry in my life. When I receive the ash, I remember the privilege I have to fast, to give, and to mark my brow with mourning when my bodily state is secure. I have the privilege to speak of “the poor” as an abstract category for my theology. I deny myself of what I easily possess in order to give to those who have not.
This lenten season, I remember that my ash marks my privilege as I ask forgiveness for the many ways I’ve failed my neighbor. I am mindful of the ways my life runs on habit, the many ways I can go through my day without recognizing the injustice around me. The lenten season calls us to remember our privilege, to recognize the ways our life runs on rhythm, unaware of the intersections of injustice. Today, I allow the ash to disrupt my rhythm, so that I might hear the rhythms of others.