Tis the Season

 

Every major department store has been decorated for Christmas for about a month now, what with Thanksgiving just past. Living in the Christmas City, I've seen holiday decorations since early October. But now that we've eaten ourselves silly with turkey and all the trimmings, things like trying to not to blow our car horns in utter frustration at the mass of humanity shopping with us, Charlie Brown's Christmas special (my personal favorite), and time for reflection on another year about to close become commonplace. Tis the season, after all.

It's also a time to try and help others who may not be as fortunate as we are in whatever way we can. Charity comes, so the medievalists say, in two forms: discriminate and indiscriminate. Depending on which dead theologian you listen to, you should be wary of giving alms (so say those in the "discriminate" camp) to those of "vile professions" (among them, prostitution, actors, and gladiators, says Augustine), or the faithful Christians among us should be given preferential treatment first (so says Ambrose).  My personal favorite, Saint John Chrysostom, believed (in the "indiscriminate" camp) that you should give to whoever asks because you, the giver, can never really know if that person is truly in need or is scamming you. And if you don't believe me, consult Gratian's Decretum, "published" in 1140, if you like Latin.

One of the big debates in the medieval world when times were hard and people needed help, was to try and determine who deserves charity--who should we give to because who, really, needs it?  The medieval world had many ways of making visible vice and destitution--prostitutes, for example, had to wear white caps (an odd choice of color, you must admit) in addition to being branded, and the poor were ostensibly marked by their socioeconomic status. In the medieval world, while you still had those who would take advantage of you, it was fairly obvious to see who was truly poor and in need. Today, some eight hundred sixty-nine years after Gratian's compilation, we're still facing the same problems: times are hard, people are out of work, lots of organizations fill our mailboxes asking for donations and more donations, and more people are in need. The sda.gov/wps/portal/%21ut/p/_s.7_0_A/7_0_1OB?contentidonly=true&contentid=2009/11/0575.xml" target="_blank">USDA reports that last year 14 million families, an increase of 11.1 percent in 2007, suffered from "food insecurity", times when families could not afford enough food at their table.  This year with the "new poor," the family in the suburbs may very well be feeling a similar kind of want that an inner city family faces daily.

When times are hard and we have the luxury of having enough for ourselves and our families, we may be tempted to not try and help others. These days, it's hard to figure out who needs help and who's just taking us for a ride, and with as much uncertainty as the rest of the world gives us daily, skepticism runs rampant. Maybe the skepticism of Ambrose and Augustine (the "double As", if you want to make them flashy. The church fathers could use a bit of flash, in my opinion) is well-placed. Those gladiators, man, always asking for something. But with organizations like the Salvation Army expanding the technology of their kettle program with their "plastic kettles", thus making it easier for us to give, hopefully everyone can find ways to give what they can, in whatever way they can, this holiday season.

Tis the season, after all.

 

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