We all know Lent is a penitential time of the year. However, what often happens during Lent is that many of the penances we adopt revolve around fasting, abstinence and prayer. Some of us give up coffee, desserts or snacks, others take on spiritual practices like trying to attend daily Mass. But sadly, almsgiving, the traditional third form of penance in the Christian life is often neglected. This is unfortunate, because giving alms is a powerful way to grow in holiness. Catholic writer Scott Hahn even goes as far as saying that almsgiving is superior to prayer and fasting, because as he put it, giving alms includes both prayer and fasting, and surpasses them.
Why should I give alms?
Jesus gives us a clear mandate to give alms (Mark 6, Luke 12). Strictly speaking, almsgiving means giving financially or materially to someone in need. In a broader sense, almsgiving refers to acts of mercy, covering the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. The fact that God blesses those who help the poor and needy is clear throughout the Bible. Giving alms purifies us and helps us grow in virtue, particularly those of charity, mercy and generosity.
“We are called to give, driven by a love for God and neighbor.”
The famous maxim, “whatever you do to the least of my brothers, you do unto me,” derived from Matthew 25:40, is Jesus’ invitation to recognize his presence in the poor. Almsgiving is indicative of an authentic conversion of heart because it is rooted in real actions and sacrifices for someone else in need. Thus, it must become more than us fumbling for change when encountering a homeless person, and certainly far more than just a nice, pious thought. Think about it: If we see a homeless man on the street, does it make sense to wish him well or would it make more sense to ask if the man would like some food to eat (see James 2:14-16)?
How can I give more?
Giving is one area that we as Catholics fare quite poorly. For instance, studies show that Catholics tithe just about one percent of their household income...