Almsgiving is not a word that we use often today. We will often speak of “mission support” or “charity” or something akin to “philanthropy.” These terms certainly speak of the mission of God, or of His call to us to be a people of love, but the traditional term for the Lenten discipline has been simply “almsgiving.”
Almsgiving denotes a sense in which not only is charity given to those in need, but a merciful kind of giving, characterized by pity. Pity is not usually given a positive connotation today, but it essentially that proper human response to the sight of wretchedness, that of tenderness, compassion, and care. We might say that almsgiving comes by being moved to compassion when we see the plight of others, not in a remote sense, but in a direct sense. Almsgiving, then, concerns our neighbors, especially those who bring us distress.
Mother Theresa used to speak of the poor as “Christ in his distressing disguise.” Jesus himself makes reference to this when he says: “I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’” (Matthew 25:36 RSV) To lend compassion to the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned is to love and have mercy upon our neighbor in an incarnate way – in the flesh – especially to those who most distress us.
Almsgiving expresses interior conversion with regard to our neighbor while fasting expresses interior conversion with regard to ourselves, and prayer expresses interior conversion with regard to God. What we find is that the Holy Spirit is at work in us to truly sanctify our selfishness when it comes to the plight of our neighbors. Jesus holds up before us the image of the Good Samaritan, who stops to come to the aid of his neighbor, beaten and bloodied on the road. He not only pays for a room, but he personally takes care of the details. This required looking a distressing image of humanity square in the face and acting in total selflessness.
I would challenge you, this coming Lent, to pray that the Lord would show you his face in the most distressing of your neighbors, and lead you to ways that you can show compassion and mercy.
There was a man who used to sleep on the grounds of my former parish. He was definitely insane, given to fits of rage and erratic behavior. He would deficate on our wheelchair ramps and spread trash all over the place, which of course my staff and I had to pick up, nearly every day. When we decided to offer small kindnesses to him, a bottle of water, a half of a sandwich, a pair of new shoes, not only did his demeanor change, he became something of an honorary security guard, personally keeping watch over the parish. He cleaned up after himself. He even let a local charity give him a haircut. Through this man, wretched and distressing as he was, I learned just how much the Lord intends the kindness of his people to be a light in this world. You never know what almsgiving might do!