As with any significant journey, our Lenten journey requires both bringing things along and discarding along the way.
Prayer is something we must bring along on our journey: every day we turn toward God, our guide and our goal. Fasting is detaching from things that are not helpful: we push away from the table, the TV, the interminable internet – all to re-calibrate our focus.
So how does almsgiving, our third focus in Lent, fit into our journey?
A traditional definition of almsgiving includes donating money or goods to the poor and performing other acts of charity. On a deeper level, almsgiving is “a witness to fraternal charity” and “a work of justice pleasing to God.” (CCC #2462)
While generosity may encourage others to give, our almsgiving should not have anything to do with impressing others.
“Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them… When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do… But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what you right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” (Matthew 6:1-4)
Our almsgiving done in “secret” does not mean impersonal. Instead, it is a personal manifestation and extension of the eternal mercy of Christ. He is not only the animator of almsgiving, but in our service, Christ is rediscovered and encountered.
Pope Francis tells us, “We must go in search of the people who are the flesh of Christ… When I used to go to hear confessions… I would always ask them: ‘Do you give alms? ‘Yes, Father.’ ‘Very good.’ And I would ask them two further questions: ‘Tell me, when you give alms do you look the person in the eye?’ ‘Oh, I don’t know; I haven’t really thought about it.’ The second question: ‘And when you give alms do you touch the hand of the person you are giving them to or do you toss the coin at him or her?’ This is the issue: the flesh of Christ, touching the flesh of Christ.” (Pope Francis. The Church of Mercy: A Vision for the Church.)
Now this is radical thinking. It is Christian thinking. The way to get closer to each other is to be Christ’s hands of mercy. Our goal is not just to imitate Christ by being responsive to the poor. It is to find Christ.
When Bishop Loverde says Mass for the imprisoned, he often says, “I come here today to see you, knowing I would see Christ.”
He makes it so simple for us: encountering the poor allows us to encounter Christ.
At Catholic Charities, we resolve to do just that:
- When poor customers come to our St. Lucy Project food pantries, we talk to them while they’re picking out food so we can get to know them personally.
- When our counselors and immigration attorneys meet with people, they spend a few extra minutes getting to know the client, the Christ-bearer, sitting before them.
- Our ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes at Hogar regularly include discussion groups so our students can practice English and we can hear about their challenges.
These days, many are cynical about the whereabouts of Christ. We underestimate His desire to be near to us. We underestimate the Eucharist as the real body, soul and divinity of Christ. Could it be that we also underestimate seeing Him dwelling in the lives of the poor?
“Poverty for us Christians is not a sociological, philosophical, or cultural category. No: It is theological. I might say this is the first category because our God, the Son of God, abased Himself. He made Himself poor to walk along the road with us. This is our poverty: The poverty of the flesh of Christ; the poverty that brought the Son of God to us through His Incarnation. A poor Church for the poor begins by reaching out to the flesh of Christ. If we reach out to the flesh of Christ we begin to … understand this poverty: the Lord’s poverty.” (Pope Francis. The Church of Mercy: A Vision for the Church.)
Almsgiving, volunteering with the poor, being Christ’s hands of mercy… these are all ways that we can encounter the flesh of Christ. Our lives – and those whom we are serving – are enhanced when we step outside of ourselves and into poverty.
For then we touch the flesh of Christ.
And isn’t that what we’re seeking in this Lenten journey: an encounter with Christ?
During this season of Lent, Art Bennett, Catholic Charities President and CEO, is sharing his weekly reflections on how the poor can bring us closer to Christ. Art has been President of Catholic Charities since 2010; he is also a licensed marriage and family therapist and has published four books with his wife Laraine.
If you would like to encounter Christ by encountering the poor, please sign up to volunteer here or contact Sally O’Dwyer, Director of Volunteers, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (703) 841-3838. If you would like to make a sacrificial gift to bring hope and healing to the poor, please make a donation of any size. By signing up for our weekly or monthly blog emails, you can learn more about Catholic Charities and our work to bring Christ to those who are giving and receiving help.