Ash Wednesday and Works of Mercy

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the great season of Lent.

It is good at this time to renew our efforts to corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

The Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy are:

  1. To instruct the igorant
  2. To counsel the doubtful
  3. To admonish sinners
  4. To bear wrongs patiently
  5. To forgive offenses willingly
  6. To comfort the afflicted
  7. To pray for the living and the dead

The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy are:

  1. To feed the hungry
  2. To give drink to the thirsty
  3. To clothe the naked
  4. To shelter the homeless
  5. To visit the sick
  6. To visit the imprisoned
  7. To bury the dead

Note that this is a modern listing of the corporal works of mercy. The work “to shelter the homeless” has replaced the traditional work “to harbor the harborless,” and the work “to visit the imprisoned” has replaced “to ransom the captive.”

Traditionally, the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy are:

  1. To feed the hungry
  2. To give drink to the thirsty
  3. To clothe the naked
  4. To harbor the harborless
  5. To visit the sick
  6. To ransom the captive
  7. To bury the dead

While there is nothing objectionable to the modern listing, it seems that something is lost in the substitution. Harboring the harborless goes beyond sheltering the homeless to include the welcome of strangers and providing a refuge for refugees. And the work of ransoming captives includes freeing slaves and prisoners of war as well as forgiving debt, which is a kind of bondage. Of course, the holder of the debt is not the only one who can ransom the captive. Paying off someone else’s debt, or helping them pay it off, is another way in which they can be freed from debt, and is also a work of mercy. Both the forgiveness of debt and the payment of the debts of others are corporal works of mercy and to be encouraged in this Jubilee Year of Mercy.

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