Let me start by saying this: I live a very comfortable life. Despite all the things I could do if I had more money, my needs are taken care of, and I can even afford to be selective about the quality of goods I purchase. I have a roof over my head, maintenance at my beck-and-call at my apartment complex, and a car that doesn’t give me too much trouble. Even more than that, I have people who would come to my aid if my life was flipped upside down and I no longer had this level of security. And for that, I know I am greatly blessed.
But lately I’ve recognized a lack within myself: a lack of generosity, of heart-stretching charity.
I’m talking about almsgiving.
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During the Lenten season, the Church asks the faithful to practice three tenets: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Personally, the first two are fairly easy, even if fasting is not quite enjoyable. But almsgiving … that’s where I fall short. It’s easy to put my pennies in the special collection bin or donate to a charity, but I often keep my tithing comfortable. Unlike prayer and fasting, I’ve never treated it as an opportunity to stretch my heart. Instead, I’ve kept it convenient. Even worse, I’ve often treated it as optional. But it shouldn’t (always) be convenient. And it can never be optional. Why? Because Jesus commanded us to do so.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives his sermon about the judgment of the nations in which he introduces six of the seven corporal works of mercy: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me” (Mt 25:35-36). (The seventh corporal work of mercy — burying the dead — comes from the book of Tobit.)
While we can’t be all things for all people, we are called to go out of ourselves for others — our families, friends and those in our immediate circles first, but also for those in our community and the larger world.
So, what does that look like? Here are some ideas.
Time, talent and treasure
The Church often talks about offering our time, talent and treasure. This can be a good way to approach almsgiving during Lent.
When we think of almsgiving, most likely the first thing that comes to mind is a monetary contribution. Donating to initiatives that assist those in need is a true act of charity, even if it’s easy (or automatic if you have monthly donations set up to be taken directly from your bank account). Here are some ways to think about almsgiving:
- Donate to charitable programs funded by your parish during the Lenten season (and year round).
- Look into programs in your community that are helping those in need. While it is good to donate to programs that help people the world over, the Church also teaches that we should pay attention to the needs of our local communities. Whether it’s donating food to a food pantry, or women’s care or baby products to a women’s shelter, find a need in your local community and see how you can support it.
Financial donations are good, but I’ve also come to realize that often when we think about charity and almsgiving in this way alone, we miss a crucial element: direct encounter with another human being. To use Christ’s words, “For I was hungry and you gave me food.” Not “you donated food” — though, as I noted, that is still a true act of charity. But the direct encounter takes the act a step further by helping another person recognize their own dignity. Maybe Christ is asking you to be his physical hands and feet in your community.
There are many ways to stretch our hearts by going outside of the comfort of our homes to encounter those in need:
- Volunteer at the food pantry, women’s shelter or any other local program that is trying to meet the immediate needs of those in the community.
- Ask your parish if they need more volunteers to bring the Eucharist to the homebound or assist with the Vincent de Paul Society.
- If you are in a location where there are many homeless people walking the streets, stop to ask their name and hear their story. (This can be a good thing to do with another person for safety reasons.)
- Also, try to meet some of their needs by keeping food and resources on hand. This can look like buying gift cards for food (such as Subway or grocery stores), keeping food (such as granola bars and water bottles) in your car, or even packing a simple meal if you know you will likely encounter someone on your daily commute. Physical necessities such as socks, toothbrushes and toothpaste, deodorant, lip balm and lotion are also good ways to bring a little comfort to their lives.
- Even if you can’t meet people in person, pray for those you see on the side of the road. Or download Christ in the City’s Lenten calendar to pray for the homeless people in Denver by name.
You can easily do a quick internet search to find countless other ways to practice almsgiving during Lent and year round. No matter what you do, ask the Lord to help you find a practice that stretches your heart outside of your comfort zone, a practice that helps you live the Gospel radically. We all have something to give. How can you be God’s hands and feet this Lent?