Lent Midst the Pandemic

Lewis Walker |

Lent began with Ash Wednesday on February 17th, lasting forty days through Holy Saturday, April 3, prelude to the joy of Easter Sunday. The word Lent comes from the Anglo-Saxon word lecten, meaning “Spring,” and lenctentid, signifying “Springtide,” and also “March,” the month in which the majority of the Lenten period falls.

Lenten observances have ancient roots. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are basic tenets of the three Abrahamic religions─Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The giving of money, goods, and services to the poor and struggling, is a pillar of God-centered living, virtues that receive added focus during Lent. In Old Testament writings, Tobit instructs his son to “perform good works all the days of your life, and do not tread the paths of wrongdoing...Give alms from your possessions. Do not turn your face away from the poor, and God’s face will not be turned away from you. Son, give alms in proportion to what you own. If you have great wealth, give alms out of your abundance; if you have but little, distribute even some of that.” Tobit 4:5;7-8.

Service and sacrifice garner added attention as we observe the bookends of Christ’s earthly journey, His birth during the Christmas season, His death and resurrection celebrated during Lent and Easter. There’s evidence of  clandestine Lenten preparations in the early days of the Church, but Lenten activities became more visible after the Romans legalized Christianity in 313 A.D.

Lent spans forty days, recognizing the spiritual significance of the number forty. Noah endured the flood for forty days. Climbing Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, “Moses stayed there with the Lord for forty days and forty nights without eating any food or drinking any water, and he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant.” Exodus 34:28. Elijah walked for 40 days and 40 nights to the mountain of the Lord, Mount Horeb (another name for Mount Sinai). 1 Kings 19:8. Tempted by the devil in the desert, “Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry.” The devil offered bread and Jesus replied, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” Matthew 4:4.

During Lent it’s common to “give something up.” But Covid-19 has forced many people to “give things up” involuntarily. We hear of suffering, people out of work, unable to pay rent, hunger. This Lenten season offers opportunities to reach out, giving time, talent, and treasure, helping those in difficult straits. Worthy charities need you.

At one parish, the St. Vincent DePaul Society food pantry is in dire need of food, but also non-food items: shampoo, conditioner, toothbrushes, toothpaste, bar soap, toilet paper, laundry and dish detergent. Loading up on items for delivery to the church would be a worthy effort. There’s more stress and difficulty in our North Fulton neighborhoods than you might imagine. Churches, synagogues, charities, food banks, shelters, and other sources of uplifting outreach need volunteers and financial support.

With stock averages at or near all-time highs, gifts of highly appreciated stock from a personal account can be a timely and tax-wise gift. If you have qualified retirement plans such as  IRA, 401(K), SEP-IRA, you have another tax-smart opportunity. If your 70th birthday is July 1, 2019 or later, you must begin taking Required Minimum Distributions (RMD) in the year you turn age 72. Those who reached 70 ½ in 2019 or prior were subject to annual RMD withdrawals, except during the pandemic in 2020, when RMDs were suspended. This year, they’re back!

Rather than pay taxes on RMD distributions, account holders may direct a Qualified Charitable Distribution (QCD) be sent to a charity or charities of up to $100,000 per year, avoiding a taxable distribution. This may lower your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) on which your Medicare premiums are based, for added savings.

For 2021, the Standard Deduction for singles is $12,550; married filing jointly, $25,100; head of household, $18,800. Seniors with homes paid for and medical coverage may not have sufficient tax deductions to warrant itemizing. In that case, supporting charities with RMD money makes sense. For 2021, taxpayers who are at least 65 years old or blind can claim an additional standard deduction of $1,350 ($1,700 using single or head of household filing status). If you take the standard deduction, for 2021 you may deduct a charitable contribution up to $300 single, $600 filing jointly.

Tax strategies aside, what counts is the giving of self to help others. St. Gregory Nazianzen, 4th century theologian and philosopher, advised, “Give something, however small, to the one in need. For it is not small to one who has nothing. Neither is it small to God, if we have given what we could.” Given the privations of Covid-19, the reflections of Lent are even more meaningful as we seek recovery and renewal.