Advent teaches giving, charity, love
By Father Paul Turner
Catholic Key Scripture Columni
The Good News for the First Sunday of Advent, Nov. 30, 2003
Jeremiah 33: 14-16
1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2
Luke 21:25-28, 34-36
A school not far away from me recently conducted a food drive for the hungry. I'm sure they hoped to develop good habits among young citizens. Food drives usually accomplish something - like an awareness of local hunger, the fulfillment of a society's duty to care for the needy, or the building of character through self-sacrifice.
But the organizers, wishing to increase contributions, ultimately hurt their own message. They offered a prize to the class that collected the most donated food. They unwittingly taught two crass lessons: that in America today, we are not likely to give to the needy unless we get something back, and that the exercise of charity is too boring to survive on its own without a spirited competition.
It gets worse. The first and second place classes were awarded ice cream and pizza respectively. But the first place winners preferred pizza, and the second place winners preferred ice cream. So they switched.
Somehow, some key messages about hunger got lost here. The winners made choices about what they would eat, but the hungry usually don't get choices. They are grateful just to have food.
Further, if you're going to give food to the hungry out of a spirit of charity, wouldn't it have been more consistent to give prizes to the hungry as well?
But this is 21st century America, and we think of others only after thinking of ourselves. We vote for a candidate who will lower our taxes, regardless of what the next generation will have to pay. We get a better tax break on office expenses than we do for charitable giving, so we measure out our contributions in drops. Even recent diocesan financial campaigns have promised parishes a kickback if they meet their goal for giving charitably.
As Christmas approaches, children will be promised toys and candy if they are good. Of course, they will also develop habits that enrich their appreciation of themselves, others and society, but those perks pale before the glitz of a good video game. To encourage vigilance among children, we sing to them about an omniscient Santa: "He sees you when you're sleeping. He knows when you're awake. He knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness' sake."
Christianity is not exempt from attaching personal benefits to altruistic virtues. Our religion promises an eternal reward to those who love others. We know we'll get even more back in the end.
Charity, of course, should be its own reward. We should be willing to sacrifice, to give and to love because these virtues are good not because they will somehow improve our own bottom line.
It is refreshing, then, to see the encouragement Paul gives the Thessalonians in next Sunday's second reading (1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2). Next week begins a new church year. Advent prepares us for Christmas with a series of well-chosen scriptures. The season's second readings are often overlooked because their connection to Christmas is obscure. Next week's reading is a good example. In the middle of this passage, Paul talks about "the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones." This reading comes on the First Sunday of Advent because it mentions "the coming" of the Lord.
Christmas will recall the coming of Jesus 2,000 years ago. But Advent is already pointing us toward the future coming of the Lord Jesus.
Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians could be the first epistle that Paul wrote and the first book ever composed for the New Testament. In this passage, Paul encourages the Thessalonians to increase in love so they will be blameless before God at the coming of the Lord Jesus. The motive for love is to live blamelessly. Paul does not even mention the judgment. Jesus will be coming, but it doesn't appear that he's angry, or anxious to separate sheep from goats. Paul wants love in this community so they can greet Jesus when he comes; kind of like the way you spruce up the house before visitors arrive. You're not afraid of suffering judgment from them - you just want to be at your best to enjoy their company. Charity is its own reward.
As Advent prepares us for Christmas, it will challenge us to learn why it is we give: not to get gifts back, not to strengthen the economy, not to impress people. We give because charity is a good idea.
Father Paul Turner is the pastor of St. Munchin Parish in Cameron.