Parable of the Two Sons, by Andrey Mironov 2012

194. Observe Lent with Thanksgiving

When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” [Deuteronomy 26:4-10, NRSV].

  Bread, broken and shared.

Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is observed by Muslims worldwide as a month of fasting to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad according to Islamic belief. A Muslim friend told us that he is always a changed person during Ramadan, seriously fasting instead of wasting himself in usual careless consumption, keeping quiet and somber, praying all the time, instead of behaving loosely. We did not find it amusing when he said that because that is what the month of Ramadan commonly generates in the Muslim community –  fasting, praying and a somber spirit.

For the Christians, it is likewise easy to sober down a little, and enter into the season of Lent with mourning and repentance. It is easy for us to recall, for instance, prophet Joel’s call: “Rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:13). Such Joel-like spirit is commonly observed and pretty contagious in the church community during these forty-days.

What is perhaps more difficult to do, is to embark on the Lenten journey with thanksgiving. That is, we shall celebrate Lent by celebrating the Lord’s bounty. Recall prophet Amos in this regard as he proclaims in Amos 4:5: “‘Bring a thank offering of leavened bread, and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them; for so you love to do, O people of Israel!’ says the Lord God.”

At the start of Lent, we are accustomed to the Gospel imagery of Jesus in the desert – praying and fasting, and resisting the allures of Satan. That is necessary. That, in fact, has become the primal desert sojourn around which we structure our Lenten practice. However, the memorable passage from Deuteronomy 26:1-12 offers helpful pointers towards translating an Amos-like spirit into actions and serves as a different and yet profound way to celebrate Lent as well.

In this speech delivered by Moses to the Israelites at the river Jordan just before their entry into the land of promise, the founder of the Israeli nation is reminding his 7th-century B.C. fellow citizens what they need to be doing to fulfill the ancient commands of YHWH, offered to them long ago on the banks of Jordan. In Deuteronomy 26, Moses addresses the subject of proper thanksgiving. Here, we are given a glimpse of what it means to be thankful and how to translate true thanksgiving into real life actions.

1. Remember God’s Gifts and Make Return-Gifts

  • Repetitively, the Israelites are urged to recognize YHWH’s gifts and then to make return-gifts to YHWH.
  • Specifically, in return for the gift of land, the people shall reciprocate by bringing to YHWH the first fruits of the land.

For our Lenten journey, here is a model action. We are to remember to make a return-gift to God in direct response for His gifts to us. In doing so, we shall not forget; instead, we are to explicitly call to mind our journey in life, just like the Israelites who provide a brief summary of the events surrounding the Exodus from Egypt and the entry into the land of promise (Dt 26:6-9). In the process, we shall also remember that despite difficulties and hardship, we have grown from our earlier situation of relative poverty to our present situation of relative prosperity (see Dt 26:4-5). In other words, we shall see Israel’s history as our human history – we have all been wanderers, outsiders and immigrants; we too have in our ancestral history at times been oppressed, deprived, and in need of liberation; we too shall make the confession, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…”; and we shall be grateful for God’s presence in our life journey.

So our celebration is rich in thanksgiving for all of God’s actions on behalf of Israel. But in this celebration, we may observe that the result of the history lesson in the sanctuary is very much a summary statement of thanksgiving for all of God’s actions on behalf our very own people as well.

  • 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lordyour God and bow down before the Lord your God. 11 Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house. (Dt 26:10-11). 

2. Remember and Be in Solidarity with the Poor, the Oppressed, and the Marginalised

Proper thanksgiving always includes a conscious need to care for those who cannot easily fend for themselves. So in this ancient text, care and consideration would reach out to include the landless and holy Levites, who rely on the gifts of Israelites for their very survival, and the “aliens”, who are the strangers, the immigrants, possibly driven from their homeland by war or famine, but who have in any case come to Israel for safety and sustenance. Regardless whether their stay is brief or protracted, Moses makes it clear that part of an appropriate thanksgiving for God’s gifts of land and its bounty is to share that bounty with those immigrants in their midst.

Deuteronomy 26:12 therefore completes the idea for us, reinforcing the requirement to care for the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, “so that they may eat their fill, within your towns.” Full thanksgiving means that people other than ourselves must be full as well. To let others go hungry while we have our fill and keep our surplus, is to thwart the intentions of God’s gifts, and in turn render our thanksgiving incomplete. The final word of thanksgiving shall therefore include justice for all.

3. Remember and Factor Gratitude and Thanksgiving into Daily Lenten Practice

So in Lent, our work of worship shall include three pillars: in addition to fasting and praying, we shall celebrate God’s rich gifts to us by sharing our bounty with those who have difficulties providing for themselves, including the immigrants. The first word we say to the immigrants among us should not be a question: “Are you legal?” Instead, it should be: “Come, join us in the celebrations of God’s rich gifts to us.” That is the Lenten journey of gratitude to which God has called us. Celebrating the Lord’s bounty can then be an integral part of an interesting and profound way to celebrate Lent. The text in Deuteronomy 26 asks of us: remember what God has done for us, bring those memories to the Lord in thanksgiving, and then share the gifts with those in need, near and far.

  • We can recall all the gifts and promises of God that have come true for ourselves, our family and loved ones, for our faith community, friends here and abroad, for our Church and nation. All these gifts, promises fulfilled, protection given, are gathered up and brought before the Lord in an act of thanksgiving repeated each day in Lent. In daily Lenten practice, we consciously figure out how to share those gifts with not just the community of the church, but more so  with the poor, the outcast, the marginalized. In imitation of the Lord, the hungry, lonely, broken-hearted, and exiled, near and far, need not wait for our help until Lent is over.

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, February 2018. All rights reserved.

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