The Power of Lenten Almsgiving

Often, when we think about almsgiving, our minds immediately turn to money. Of course, contributing material wealth is important and commendable (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:1–2). But this is only a piece of the profound sense of almsgiving.?

“Alms” encompass a broader significance than merely material donations. The word is derived from the Greek eleemosunei meaning “mercy.” This term echoes in our chants of "Kyrie eleison" during Mass ("Lord, have mercy"). What this means is that almsgiving is not merely giving of monetary or material goods, but it is, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, giving “out of compassion and for God’s sake.” It is, in other words, God’s mercy in action.?

Such a view of almsgiving allows us to see that the giving of mercy includes not only giving monetary alms, but all of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy such as visiting the sick and imprisoned, giving shelter to the homeless, instructing the ignorant, comforting the afflicted, admonishing the sinner, and bearing wrongs committed against us.?

This larger list of “almsgiving” might initially appear daunting. It’s no wonder we’ve reduced it to money— it simplifies things. It’s a lot easier and less awkward to just give money rather than to admonish a sinner! In our individualistic context, with strong materialistic tendencies, we find it easier to avoid engaging meaningfully with our coworkers or peers or to shy away from the myriad of opportunities we have to practice “giving God’s mercy” within our local communities.

But the full sense of almsgiving is not optional for the follower of Christ. It's an integral part of the commandment to love your neighbor. ?Aquinas says that as prayer is an antidote to sins against God, and fasting the antidote to the sins of the flesh, almsgiving is the antidote to sins against neighbor (Commentary on Matthew, #563). Through acts of almsgiving—whether corporal or spiritual—we establish a relationship with our neighbors, becoming channels of God's charity. We do this recognizing that everything we possess—our material wealth, our intellects, and even our faith—we have only because God himself has had mercy on us— he has loved us first (1 John 4:19)

So, what’s a good way to practice the spiritual and corporal works of mercy this Lent? A meaningful starting point might be to engage with those physically near to you: your literal neighbors. Everyone is in need of God’s mercy, whether it’s food or drink, admonishment or comfort. Maybe you have neighbors who are in need of Christ the comforter, Christ the admonisher, or Christ the one who feeds and gives to drink. Be that channel of God’s mercy this Lent through this full sense of almsgiving.

Br. Elias Guadalupe Ford, O.P. | Meet the Brothers in Formation HERE

Image Credit, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons