At Ash Wednesday we were invited “to observe a holy Lent by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.” Yet we have, in a sense, been in an extended Lent through the past year as the COVID-19 pandemic has invited us, through radical disruption of our lives, to examine ourselves and the world around us in light of the gospel. We have become painfully aware of social inequities laid bare by the effects of COVID-19, with the realization that these are not new issues. We have been able to ignore or push them away as low-priority until faced with the consequences of inaction.
Last April I took my car to the mechanic to have the winter tires changed during the first wave of the pandemic. I could not wait at the shop for the car. It was too far to walk home, and all the restaurants and coffee shops were closed. There was nowhere to get out of the cold, icy weather to warm up—no public washrooms available anywhere to use—and nowhere to get a hot cup of coffee. I knew my long walk would soon be over and I could go to a warm home again. The homeless in that downtown area could not. The reality of homelessness hit me in a new way that day.
There are many complex reasons for homelessness—economic, social and personal. In both Canadian and international law, adequate housing is recognized as a fundamental human right. Yet we have not eradicated homelessness, let alone ensured “adequate” housing in parts of our country, especially in northern and Indigenous communities. We see homelessness in our own communities. We see the radical level of homelessness in refugees around the world driven from their homelands by war, economic deprivation, climate change, natural disasters and ethnic violence.
The solution to homelessness, and the other inequities revealed, lies with all of us. The poet John Donne eloquently reminds us:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
… Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Jesus teaches through the parable of the Good Samaritan and the story of the judgement of the sheep and goats that how we treat those around us is a measure of how we have integrated the gospel into our words and actions. Our neighbour is anyone in need, inside or outside our own community, and it is in their well-being that we see the face of God.
Those who have engaged in refugee sponsorships know how much more is received than given in those relationships. We find life in giving it to others. It is a principle reiterated by Jesus in his stories, parables and actions. We will find the fullness of life God promises in generosity, compassion, mercy and justice for the whole human community. The ultimate paradox of the gospel is that the death of Jesus, the ultimate giving for others, leads to life for all.
May our examination and penitence this Lent lead us to lives of generous giving to others, healing the wounds in our communities, and seeking justice for our neighbours.