The word "almsgiving" is derived from the old English aelmesse, which comes from the Greek word eleemosyna for mercy, as in Kyrie, eleison, "Lord, have mercy."
On Ash Wednesday, Jesus spoke about three elements central to a Christian plan of life. Last week we discussed fasting. We've tackled prayer several times already and will do so again. Today, we take up the third element Jesus gives us for our spiritual game plan for Lent and beyond: almsgiving.
"When you give alms," Jesus tells us, "do not blow a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. ... Do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret and your Father who sees in secret will repay you."
Just as prayer is meant to help us to begin to think and will as God does, and fasting is meant to help us to hunger for the things for which God hungers, the ultimate purpose of almsgiving is to help us to enter into a deeper communion with God by sharing with others the providential care he has first give us.
"Your well-being," St. John Vianney once told his parishioners, "is nothing other than a depository that God has placed in your hands." God has made us stewards of his own generosity so that we might share in his paternal love.
Pope Francis stressed this point in his 2015 Lenten Letter, writing, "In each of our neighbors, we must see a brother or sister for whom Christ died and rose again. What we ourselves have received, we have received for them as well."
Jesus came from heaven to earth to form us to be children of God, true chips off the divine block. He came not merely to call us to love others as he has loved us, but to show and help us to do so. The Good Samaritan wanted to train us to become good Samaritans. The kingdom he established is one in which we take responsibility for each other as our brothers' keepers, in which we care for the Lazaruses all around us. The Lord and Master entered into our world not to be served but to serve and to teach us how to become great through becoming servants of all the rest. That's the theological foundation for our charity.
The word "almsgiving" is derived from the old English aelmesse, which comes from the Greek word eleemosyna for mercy, as in Kyrie, eleison, "Lord, have mercy." Almsgiving refers principally not to the giving of goods to the indigent, but to the Christ-like compassion that leads us to do all we can for those in need.
There's an obvious material dimension to giving alms, since many suffer in various forms of material need. Genuinely sacrificing our money and possessions -- giving not just something but giving to the point that we ourselves go without something we need for someone who needs it more -- is one of the greatest ways to ensure that we don't worship the ancient golden calf. Many of are tempted to serve and place our faith, hope and love in mammon instead of God. Our spiritual growth is impeded because we, like the Rich Young Man, won't let give what we have to the poor to follow Christ more fully.
We notice, however, that the Gospel doesn't list many material benefactions of Jesus. His principal alms was the gift of himself. On various occasions, the evangelists say that his "heart was moved with pity" and as a result he taught, healed, fed, forgave and resuscitated.
Almsgiving involves not just giving food to the hungry, clothing to the naked and welcome to strangers, but also visiting the sick and imprisoned, teaching and counseling those in need, forgiving and calling people from sin, praying perseveringly for the living and the dead and other personal acts.
Many of those who come to see me for spiritual direction live according to a vow or promise of poverty and so their almsgiving can seldom take on the form of giving money or possessions. I often encourage them in Lent to give of themselves and their time, making a commitment each day to give at least 15 minutes reaching out to care for someone whom they know to be in need, to pray for that person and to visit, make a phone call, or write a letter or an email. Those who do this have learned that once one intentionally begins to dedicate an extra 15 minutes a day to this type of almsgiving, one's charity doesn't stop at the quarter-hour, but begins to mushroom through life.
That experience points to an important truth: in a plan of life, the key is to plan one's charity. Random acts of kindness ought to be encouraged but are not enough. Just as prayer ought to be scheduled rather than spontaneous, the same goes for charity. It's not sufficient to wait for someone in need to come to us. When we know there are those who are suffering and that Jesus personally identifies with them (Mt 25:31-46), we need to go out in search. We need to plan.
That's what so many charitable agencies, like those funded by the Catholic Charities Appeal do, but that type of organization ought to take place on a personal level as well. Charity is too important to Christian life and the spreading of God's kingdom for it to remain happenstance. Christ's charity toward us, after all, was planned from before the foundation of the world.
In Lent and in life, we're being summoned by God to plan and grow our charity more than a greedy businessman seeks to grow his profits.
This is the way we will grow in the image of the Divine Giver, which is the goal of Lent and the purpose of a plan of life.
RJL New Evangelization Talk in Boston II
- Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.