As we enter Holy Week, it is time we complete our Lenten series on the acts of religion by addressing the third act: almsgiving. What exactly are alms we might ask? A quick etymology will perhaps give us some insight. The English term “alms” traces its origin to the Greek word eleos, meaning mercy. Almsgiving, in its authentic sense, is an act of mercy. Well enough, but perhaps we should say a few words about mercy in order to gain an authentic understanding of it.
Mercy is an interesting concept. The ancient philosophers were ambivalent about it, seeing its virtue at times but at others, drawing back in suspicion of its vulnerability. Indeed, the Stoics condemned it as a vice, a weakness of the passions. We can see such a concern even among some Christians, over a too merciful God. However, St. Thomas Aquinas says that mercy is an attribute of God and that mercy among human beings is the greatest virtue.
Mercy appears to be increasing in prominence in the life of the Church over the last half-century or so. Of course, the virtue of mercy is clearly present throughout the entirety of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but beginning with Pope St. John XIII and especially so during the pontificate of St. John Paul II, this divine attribute and human virtue has been getting increased attention and its profound meaning has begun recently to be explored more deeply.
Pope Francis recently announced a Jubilee Year for 2016, a Jubilee of Mercy. This growing emphasis on mercy corresponds to an increasing urgency in the call for Catholics to bear witness to the Catholic faith in the new evangelization. All of this should be motivation for Catholics to greater awareness and practice of the virtue of mercy.
St John Paul II provides perhaps the most succinct definition of mercy when the calls it “love’s second name” (Dives in misercordia, 7). Mercy is an integral aspect of love, but mercy is the aspect of love that is ordered to removing the causes of misery in others (see St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I, Q. 21, A. 4, Resp.), whereas love, more comprehensively, is ordered to the perfection of the other.
What man knows as mercy has its origin in God as Self-less love; the Trinitarian Persons eternally giving themselves totally to one another, “holding back nothing” so to speak. The fact that we are made in God’s image tells us that we are made for such relationships of love with God and with others. Due to the fall, disorder has entered creation and this disorder has infected man, an infection that causes untold misery.
God’s, overflowing, Selfless love that results in the gift of creation explains His continuing love for creation (called by the schoolmen, continuing creation) and His work of “recreation” (that is the Incarnation, its summit in the Passion, in terms of manifesting selfless love, and its fruit in Pentecost). This re-creation, or “new creation” as St. Paul calls it, works to restore what was lost (e.g. 2 Cor 5:17). We might say that God’s merciful love (hesed) demands the ultimate “re-perfecting” of fallen creation. This gracious, undeserved restoration of the missing good (a good of which man, through sin, often incited by malevolent spiritual agency, continually deprives himself and all of creation) is what we might understand as mercy.
We are recipients of mercy and so we are called to be God’s cooperators by mediating it to others. We participate in God’s ongoing gift of mercy in many ways but a most excellent way is through almsgiving. Almsgiving is an act of mercy, that is, of love, for those who lack basic life’s necessities and who do not have the ability to obtain these necessities without the mercy of others. Almsgiving is an act of choosing to become instruments of the Holy Spirit in order to give His mercy to our brothers and sisters in need. This is not optional for Christ’s disciples.
St. John poses the question: how can Christians say they love God whom we do not see if we do not love our brother whom we do see (1 Jn 4:20). Acts of almsgiving (essentially the traditional corporal and spiritual works of mercy) are then a sine qua non for Christian life. St. James says judgment is without mercy for those who show no mercy. He goes on to say that works of merciful love are the mark of authentic faith, any other claim to faith (faith without works) is dead; it is the faith of demons (see James 2:13-19).
Mercy then, is an aspect of love. Christian love is a task, it is a virtue that we must untiringly strive to perfect; in other words, we must become holy if we are to love as we were created to, to love as we want to (see Love and the Dark Night for more on this). Love for God though, as we have seen, is a process that begins in trust and faith (see Faith and the Dark Night for a refresher on this).
Our faith in God begins with our trust in Him and His Providence. Yet, trust is a virtue, and like faith and love, it is something that needs continual strengthening, continued nurturing. Almsgiving is a liberality with God’s gifts to us beyond tithing, and for this reason it is a school of trust building. As we give to others in need, even to the point of our touching our own needs, we increase our mastery over our fears of losing control, of not having “enough.” It is such a self-mastery over fear to which Jesus points His disciples in observing the fearless, trusting widow’s act of total self-gift to God (see Mk 12:41-44). This self-mastery prepares the way for more heroic, self-giving.
Total self-giving love is an act of faith, a faith that is actualized in love for God and neighbor. The self-gift of the widow’s mite is a mundane participation in the Cross. The Cross is the Self-gift of a human being to God for His brothers in merciful love, par excellence. There are many ways of carrying our crosses, of dying to our fallen, selfish selves, but it is the connection of this merciful act of love in almsgiving to the Cross that makes it a most excellent and necessary act of religion we must meditate and act upon during the season of Lent. It is practice for mastery of fear through love that will prepare us for less mundane opportunities of self-giving.
Jesus told us that merciful acts of love for the least among us is a sine qua non for His disciples; if we do it not to the least of our brothers, we do it not to Him (see Mt 25:31-46). To say we love Him and ignore the plight of our brothers makes our claims a lie (see 1 Jn 4:20); such a faith is at root, demonic (see James 2:13-19). The merciful love to which Jesus calls those who would be His disciples is what St. John Paul II coins as “the preferential option for the poor,” an important aspect of Catholic social teaching. Almsgiving is loving Jesus through the oppressed…the poorest among us, the most humble who cannot help themselves. We joining ourselves with Him in bringing His merciful love into the world, blunting the lies of the evil one who wishes us to believe the world is a cold, uncaring, ruthless place; a godless cosmos. In serving others through almsgiving, we also reap the benefits of overcoming our own lack of trust in God, our own selfishness; we fan the flame of our inner desire to perfect others, to love others, for their own sakes.