This week, we continue our brief Lenten series addressing the three principal themes of this liturgical season: prayer, almsgiving and fasting. Last week, we reflected on prayer and this week we continue with the theme of almsgiving.
All three of these concepts are expressions of the basic purpose of Lent, which is a turning to God, a conversion of heart. In this context, we are not necessarily speaking about a major conversion from a life of sin or the process of entering the Church or coming into full communion with her. For us conversion is the response to the constant challenge of the Christian life to turn away from sin and turn towards our loving God. We meditate on this call to conversion in a special way during Lent and remind ourselves that conversion takes place in relation to God, to others and to ourself. Prayer calls us to conversion to God by an increased communication with Him, which always leads to greater fidelity. Next week, we will discuss fasting, which aids our interior personal conversion. Almsgiving, which we address this week, highlights conversion towards our neighbor. It is an opportunity to practice charity which, as the Scriptures tell us, "covers a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8).
What is almsgiving?
The Catholic Dictionary defines almsgiving in this manner: "Any of the corporal works of mercy undertaken from motives of charity for the relief of our neighbor's necessity may be called almsgiving. Almsgiving is part of the universal law of charity and so is obligatory by the law of nature; each one is bound to give according to his means; and there is no class of the needy whom we are not bound to help: neither our enemies nor members of other religious bodies nor notorious sinners may be excluded from our charity."
Almsgiving is another area in which we clearly see a complete continuity with and fulfillment of a teaching found in the Old Testament. In the Book of Tobit we read: "Give alms from your possessions. Do not turn your face away from any of the poor, and God's face will not be turned away from you. 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. But do not hesitate to give alms; you will be storing up a goodly treasure for yourself in the day of adversity" (Tobit:4:7-9).
It is easy to see here a foreshadowing of the Gospel of the "widow's mite (cf. Mark 12:44). Jesus reminds us that we are all called to give alms, not only those who possess a great abundance of wealth. He does not exclude from this command those who have only a little to give. They are also called to follow this commandment. Even the slightest alms are meaningful in God's sight.
In your parishes and throughout our archdiocese, you are given many opportunities to fulfill this commandment. When you contribute to the support of your parish according to your means or when you generously give to the diocesan collections which the Bishops of the United Sates have called for, you are not performing a faceless or mechanical act. You are being given the opportunity of fulfilling this commandment. When the Church asks for your generosity she does so in order for you to help her to fulfill her mission in the world and to aid you in fulfilling your mission of Christian charity and almsgiving. This is why it is important to give every person an opportunity to be a part of almsgiving, even the individual who has very little to give. Just as we may say that both the wise and the unlearned have an obligation to pray, according to each one's own ability, so those with many material possessions and those with very few have the obligation to give alms. This is part of the consistency of the Christian life. Just as it can be frustrating for us to be confronted with someone who says one thing but does another, so in the Christian life, a profession of faith without the accompanying spirit and work of charity deprives the external profession of its authenticity.
Lenten Message of our Holy Father
It is interesting to note that our Holy Father has taken as a theme for his Lenten Message this year the concept of almsgiving. One of the thoughts he develops is that almsgiving also helps to detach us from material things. Those who become too attached to material things eventually discover that these things are harsh masters! If we allow them to dominate us they will never be sufficient. They never say: "you have given me enough time and effort." They always want more and this is why an addiction to material things, while fooling us into thinking they will bring us happiness and fulfillment, always leads to disappointment. By not holding on to everything in a selfish manner, we are really helping ourselves to be freed from a type of slavery. In the giving of alms, we practice not only charity but also self-discipline. While the charity benefits our neighbor, the self-discipline benefits us. "In the Gospel, Jesus explicitly admonishes the one who possesses and uses earthly riches only for self. In the face of the multitudes, who, lacking everything, suffer hunger, the words of Saint John acquire the tone of a ringing rebuke: ‘How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help'" (1 John 3, 17) [Pope Benedict XVI, Message for Lent, 2008].
Even though our Holy Father is often spoken of as having one of the great minds of our time, he often presents his thoughts in a very simple manner, which is very easy to understand. He also shows a remarkable awareness of the realities of the modern world. In the Lenten Message we have just cited, he speaks about the distinction between philanthropy and the giving of alms in a Christian spirit. He points out the danger, in today's media driven world, of engaging in mere philanthropy for the sake of applause or because a particular cause happens to be popular at the time. "Almsgiving, according to the Gospel, is not mere philanthropy: rather it is a concrete expression of charity, a theological virtue that demands interior conversion to love of God and neighbor, in imitation of Jesus Christ, who, dying on the cross, gave his entire self for us. How could we not thank God for the many people who silently, far from the gaze of the media world, fulfill, with this spirit, generous actions in support of one's neighbor in difficulty?" (Pope Benedict XVI, Lenten Message).
The Eucharist and almsgiving
We have already noted the fact that almsgiving runs as a thread through both the Old and the New Testaments as being part of a life lived faithfully in God. Jesus gives us the Bread of Heaven, which was foreshadowed by the manna given to the Jews in the desert, only after He gives us a clear teaching on sharing our own bread with the hungry. We proclaim His death as taking away the sins of the world but we are also told that charity covers a multitude of sins. Just as Jesus does not give us the gift of Himself in the Eucharist in a vacuum, we do not receive or adore Him in the Eucharist in a vacuum. We have mentioned in an earlier topic that love is expansive. The more we place ourselves before the Eucharistic Jesus who "loved us to the end," the more we will leave His presence filled with charity. This charity is always expansive, so it is the source of our almsgiving.
If we examine ourselves honestly, we will see that losing our perspective on life and the relative importance of things and events often leads to a loss of inner peace. It can also lead to sin. Prayer always helps us to keep our Christian perspective and prayer before the Eucharistic Jesus enables us to look upon the Divine Teacher, who places all things and events in their proper perspective. This is why authentic Eucharistic prayer always leads to a flowering of charity towards our neighbor. This charity will be carried out in the true Christian spirit of almsgiving because it will have strengthened that spirit at its source: Jesus Himself.
Once again, I hope that our faithful people throughout the Archdiocese are focusing in a special way this Lent on the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. This is done by visiting the Blessed Sacrament in our Churches and spending time before the Eucharist in adoration. If we do this, we will also strengthen our spirit of generosity, which will lead to the Lenten practice of almsgiving, done for all the right reasons.