“Mukha kang Biyernes Santo.” That Filipino expression about “the Good Friday look” sums up the usual mood of the Lenten season, which culminates in the commemoration of Jesus Christ’s Passion and Death on the Cross. And to atone for sin and share in the Lord’s suffering, the faithful are enjoined to fast, abstain from meat, give alms, and pray.
So what is there to smile about from Ash Wednesday last week to the evening of Black Saturday, just before Easter Vigil masses celebrate the Resurrection of Christ?
Plenty, at least for those who see in sacrifices, devotions and charities an abundance of grace, wisdom, peace and joy from heaven. And even for those who don’t care for or believe in such gifts of the Spirit, there is much to smile about in Lenten observances.
Take fasting and abstinence. At bottom, these practices are about denying oneself the delights one craves and not just edible ones. By turning away even for just a few days from pleasures, one can focus more on thinking, acting and living as God wants.
Last Friday the San Juan Church priest who runs its pastoral school told students at the First Friday Mass that giving up “gimmicks” or nights out with friends counts as fasting.
So does spending more time than usual on studying.
Now even for the non-believer, giving up distractions to get important things done is not a bad thing. And the resulting work accomplished from fasting (not to mention calories avoided and pounds shed) should give reason to smile.
And if the vices shunned even for just the 40 days of Lent entail grave risks to bodily and mental health, family relationships, financial soundness, and professional integrity and reputation, then the benefits from avoiding these excesses are even greater.
Indeed, for our graft-ridden nation, several days or weeks of fasting from payoffs yield immense gains in good governance, rule of law, efficiency, and development. Most especially if legislators, governors and mayors; revenue and tariff collectors, public works and other agency officials, judges and law enforcers, and the people who bribe them decide to make abstinence from sleaze more than just a Lenten practice.
Giving alms makes everyone better off
Okay, so fasting can make even non-Christians smile. What about alms-giving? Surely fewer pesos in one’s pocket or bank account isn’t a plus for the wealthy constantly seeking greater wealth.
Tell that to Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, with $400 billion market capitalization and nearly $60 billion in cash, the second most valuable company in the world, next only to gadget maker Apple. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January, he told the annual assembly of the planet’s rich and powerful that the gap between haves and have-nots harms growth and, thus, erodes wealth.
In particular, Schmidt notes, the stagnation in middle class incomes since the 2008-09 global recession, especially in rich nations, is a big reason for the worldwide economic slump, since ordinary consumers indispensably drive growth with their spending.
Many economists would agree. As reported by The Economist magazine last week (March 1 issue, page 76), a University of Iowa study of 173 economies over half a century showed that higher inequality tends to slow economies. Concludes the article:
“Redistribution that reduced inequality might therefore boost growth.”
Indeed, if more of the $110 trillion in assets owned by the richest one percent of humanity flowed to the rest, especially the very poorest, then it would boost consumer spending and, consequently, business expansion.
If even just one percent of that gargantuan hoard of money, property, and other riches were expended on food, health care, housing, education, job creation, and other basic needs for the destitute, the $1.1 trillion would turn the current world economic expansion of about 3.5 percent into a booming 5 percent. Or even more, since the poor spend every cent they get, generating huge multiplier effects, which unexpended wealth won’t do as much.
That can’t be bad for asset values. Nor are the easing of social unrest and reduction in crime and conflict, which often accompany economic expansion and rising incomes.
And once the poor obtain the health, education, and livelihood to better themselves, they contribute even more to economic output.
Using riches to uplift the needy pays dividends for the wealthy. So smile when you give alms this Lent. Your net worth and your children’s will be better off in the long run.
When atheists pray
So even non-believers can, in fact, benefit from fasting, abstinence and alms-giving. But surely, those who don’t believe in God can’t possibly pray to Him, can they? Let’s see.
In essence, prayer is the act of communicating with God, expressing the soul’s adoration, contrition, thanks and supplication toward Him—ACTS for easy recall. He then responds with grace, guidance, good fortune, and other divine interventions.
And even though a person doesn’t believe in God, if he or she pleads in his or her heart for good to happen and God responds, then there is communication. It’s like a parent attending to a baby, even though the child wasn’t particularly calling out to Mom or Dad for a clean diaper or a bottle of milk.
So when an atheist devotes himself or herself to the building of a more just, caring and, well, godly world; laments his or her own failings in the struggle; pleads for things and events that advance this quest; and is thankful when they come about, the good-seeking unbeliever could unwittingly be communicating with the divine, not unlike the crying infant oblivious of whoever is taking loving care of the child’s needs and wishes.
And at the end of life, when the atheist meets Him, the Lord might just say, in the fashion of Monday’s Mass reading from St. Matthew’s Gospel (25:31-46): “Whenever you gave your all, pleaded, and offered thanks for the good, the true and the beautiful; and regretted their absence in the world, you prayed to Me.”
So this Lent and the rest of the year as well, strive, plead and be thankful for goodness, truth, and beauty. God is watching and waiting on every good wish, even for those who profess that they don’t believe in Him. Amen.