Throughout Lent, we continue to hear much about the three pillars of this season that draw us closer to God: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. I think most of us are more comfortable with the first two but may not understand as fully the idea of giving alms.
We know about prayer from our early days as children. I learned at the feet of my parents and was also taught in school, so enhancing or refocusing our prayer life in Lent is a fairly natural extension of what we are already doing.
Fasting is also something that we did from a young age on Ash Wednesdays and Good Fridays as well as through the discipline of giving things up.
As a kid, though, I don't think I really understood what almsgiving was, and even today, I'm not sure how many of us have thought much about it. I think almsgiving is the most often passed over or forgotten about of the three Lenten disciplines.
Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving all remind us that we should not be our own center of attention but rather God and neighbor. They are responses to the Great Commandment: to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10:27). Almsgiving does this as we grow in our union with God through sharing our blessings with our neighbor.
The practice of giving alms goes back long before Jesus was born. Throughout the Old Testament and in the time of Jesus, people lived by the belief that you were supposed to give 10 percent of your blessings back to the Lord – a tithe. It was a commitment, a way to share blessings and resources with those in need.
Lent is a great time to reflect on that. Are we generous enough to others? Do we give back of our time, talent, and treasure? If so, could we give more? Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for us, so we are called to sacrifice as well. Perhaps we could find a way to give back more, even if it hurts a little bit.
There are many opportunities to give in Lent. I like the idea that prayer, fasting, and almsgiving all work together. That wasn't talked about as much as when we were kids, but if you are fasting or have given something for Lent, set aside the money you would have spent on chocolate, desserts, alcohol or whatever to give to the poor. You can say a prayer as you do so.
Many parishes participate in Operation Rice Bowl. We do it at Catholic Charities, and while we don't receive huge amounts of money, I see the rice bowls on people's desks as I walk around the offices. Through their gifts given in place of a skipped dessert or a snack, they are giving directly to those in need served through the Rice Bowl program.
There are many other wonderful places for giving alms. You can make a gift to your own parish, and we are also blessed to have the annual Cardinal's Appeal. For many of us, this is our chance to give something back to the diocese and to help those in need. Take some time to think about whether there is a charity, church work, parish or archdiocesan program that touches your heart. I've heard from many people recently that immigration is on their minds, and they want to do something to help refugees coming to our country. What a great way to respond to God's call to help those in a new land, many of whom arrive with nothing and have no place to live.
Of course, we would welcome your alms giving here at Catholic Charities. I am immensely proud of the work we do serving those in need on the ground. I know I write often in this space about our work, so I’ll leave it at that, since I know you are familiar with our work and there are many deserving charities asking for your attention.
As you pray and fast this Lent, I would suggest that you make an effort to also think about what it means to be an almsgiver, to give yourself to those around you and to those in need. Ask yourself how you are doing in this regard and whether you could do better. Wouldn't it be wonderful if all of us found a way to share our blessings, not just because it's a nice thing to do but because we are responding directly to God's call? Our lives will be filled with even more joy at Easter because of our sacrifice.