The early Church’s three “pillars” of faith, were (as we’ve seen) prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Almsgiving is a very specific part of charity: it means giving of the blessings that you’ve received to those less fortunate than you but who are in a special way part of who you are.
And, like the other two pillars, it’s not always easy to practice. Many of us are already trying to “make do” with just enough money to cover our essential needs; we don’t feel that we have a lot left over to give away!
But just like the other pillars, almsgiving isn’t seen either in the Gospels or by the Church as optional: it is, rather, at the heart of Christian community. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read, “There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need” (4:34-35).
Most of us give, of course. We give every week to our parishes. We give every year to diocesan appeals, and we may do something special in Lent. Many of us give monthly to a chosen charity. But what is it that separates our giving from the philanthropy practiced by non-Catholics? Do we weave our almsgiving in tightly with prayer and fasting?
Giving alms isn’t just about doing something good for the world, though it’s important to try and alleviate suffering and help others. But as Christians we’re called to do more, to transcend mere philanthropy. We are called by Christ not just to give, but to make the needs of others our own, to take them into ourselves and to take them seriously. Saint Teresa of Kalkota reminds us that we see Jesus in every poor person we encounter. Is this how you’d like to treat Christ?
Almsgiving isn’t just taking your surplus to the thrift shop or writing a check to a soup kitchen. It involves the same conversion of heart that the Gospels are always calling us to: to feel the suffering of others as if it were our own, and to be compelled by that understanding into action.
In the book of Tobit, the archangel Raphael praises the three pillars—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—as virtuous, but he especially commends almsgiving: “Prayer and fasting are good, but better than either is almsgiving accompanied by righteousness. It is better to give alms than to store up gold; for almsgiving saves one from death and expiates every sin.” (Tobit 12:8-10) And at his Jubilee Audience in September, Pope Francis said, “Our English word ‘alms’ comes from an ancient Greek word itself meaning ‘mercy.’ Giving ‘alms’ is more than simply giving money; it is a matter of heart-felt concern for those in genuine need. The Bible speaks of almsgiving as a God-given duty, which must be carried out freely and joyfully, but also with a sense of responsibility.”
So how can you put Jesus first by taking the needs of others into your heart and soul this Advent? Here are some suggestions:
- Pray. Pray a lot. Ask God what you, specifically, are being called to do for others in this holy season.
- Don’t just write a check and mail it. This distances you from your giving—it keeps those who need you at arm’s length and, in a sense, invisible. Visit the places to which you want to donate: the hospitals, the soup kitchens, the shelters. Meet the people there; look into their eyes. Consider volunteering in addition to giving funds.
- Keep change and dollar bills in cash in your pockets to give to charities collecting outside grocery stores. Many of us use payment cards these days for everything, so be mindful of having something on hand.
- Ask family and friends who give you Christmas gifts every year to make a donation in your name to a charity that you like instead.
- There are more options outlined in our free Advent and Christmas Family Planner