|2/23/2017 9:00:00 AM|
Almsgiving: more than an option
BY BISHOP EDWARD B. SCHARFENBERGERAsh Wednesday is March 1, less than a week away. During the Lenten season, it's customary and spiritually beneficial for Christians to "give up" something good in which we take material pleasure: typically, something we like to eat or drink, such as alcoholic beverages, chocolates or even sweets altogether. It might also be some wholesome but time-consuming form of entertainment, like movies or video games.
This is entirely appropriate, in keeping with the practices of abstinence from meat (which is obligatory all Fridays of Lent) and fasting, which, minimally, is required on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Be it the creature comforts we are accustomed to, like fast foods and electronic gizmos -- imagine, no drive-in service, TV or texting! -- or simply a living staple like indoor climate control, a luxury not often shared by much of the world, these are modern conveniences we tend to take for granted. Many of us would feel deprived and could not imagine life without them.
Almsgiving, or giving money or food to the poor or to organizations that assist them, is always encouraged, but especially so in Lent. It is one of the corporal works of mercy. This practice is not an accessory to Christian living. It's more than an option for those who can do it.
Listen to what the Gospels say: Jesus often raises the issue by drawing attention to our own wealth or riches. Recall the account of the rich young gentleman (Mt 19:16-24).
That is not the only instance. It's surprising how often Christ keeps bringing up the subject of wealth and possessions, the things to which we get attached. You know how people are always complaining, "All the Church talks about is money"? If you read the Scriptures, there is hardly a page on which Jesus does not warn us about the dangers of riches.
However, take note: Christ never ever condemns rich people as a class. He generally avoids putting people in stereotypical categories, unless people self-identify with an "us." Rather, He warns about the pitfalls of excessive preoccupation with material things, whether one is "rich" or "poor."
Even a person who lacks many possessions can become overly obsessed with gathering them. One does not have to be "rich" to acquire an attachment to material things. In fact, if you are unhappy because of what you do not have, then, chances are, you may be just as bad off as those who have much more than they need - who, by the way, are not any happier for all their possessions!
The problem with our material attachments -- the possessions we gather and any thing, person, experience or prowess we cannot think of living without -- is that, sooner or later, we will all be without them. So the ancient author Qoheleth observed in his famous "vanity of vanities" rant in the book of Ecclesiastes: Everything goes away.
We even lose (ultimately) our health, our mental sharpness and control over our bodies. That is the reality of earthly existence. We are limited creatures and cannot escape the eventual deterioration and loss of anything to which we try to cling.
Christ Himself was subjected to such limitations as hunger, the need for sleep, the parameters of His human sexuality and temptation itself. In every way, He took on our human experience, except for sin, since he always remained grounded in the one with whom He was one and called the Father.
In the end, Christ had to let everything go, too, when He commended His Spirit into the hands of the Father (Lk 23:46). He felt the pains of rejection, aloneness, betrayal, loss of loved ones -- in short, all the limitations to which all of us, at one time or another, are subjected.
And He really died. When His earthly life came to an end, He had to let everything go, thus showing us the way to eternal life.
What happened three days after His crucifixion was nothing short of miraculous. In His resurrection, Christ quite literally punched a hole through the wall of death and came out the other side.
It is hard to imagine what this was like, but there was no doubt by the eyewitnesses that the same Jesus who had died on the cross was alive and present after the resurrection. Only the one who has been there can lead us through the canal of death to a birth into eternal life!
In a sense, every passage to life must pass through a narrow birth canal. When Christ talks in this Sunday's Gospel (Mt 6:24-34) about not worrying over our material possessions and acquisitions, our thoughts might also go back to the image of a camel trying to pass through the eye of a needle from another Gospel passage (Mt 19:24). It refers to the difficulties of passing into the kingdom of God when burdened by wealth and the worries it brings.
Again, Christ does not condemn rich people (or, for that matter, poor people believing that getting rich will save them). He does remind us all of how clinging to possessions will make our birth into eternal life difficult, if not impossible.
Death is the narrow door that leads to new life -- and it hurts to let go.
All of us come into the world crying. Our first illusion about the comforts of material security was learned in the womb. Being forced out into the light of day was not a welcome event -- except, hopefully, to the new parents.
No one would choose to be born if they new beforehand the experience of being thrust into the world. No one chooses to die voluntarily -- unless, of course, the pain in their earthly life is so intolerable that death falsely seems like the only way to alleviate it.
But Christ offers us a way to live and a way to die that only frees us for new life -- ultimately, unlimited eternal life -- if we follow Him and remain grounded in God.
The Scriptures are unambiguous: Christ offers eternal life to anyone who puts their trust in Him. Remember the good thief on the cross, who had apparently spent a life of crime; all he needed to do was ask, and Christ promised him paradise.
All of us are invited to the same eternal destiny. Now is the time to accept that offer. But we cannot pick up what Christ has earned for us if our hands and pockets are full of what is transitory and dying.
On the eve of Lent, as we consider what practices will increase our love for Jesus, prayer, fasting, abstinence and almsgiving are all recommended. This year, as Catholic Charities commemorates its centennial along with a capital campaign, we have an excellent "safe deposit box" for our almsgiving.
One thing is clear, however: Almsgiving is not optional for a Christ-centered life. It is essential for our passage into eternal life.
Give it all up to get everything? Darn right, if we believe in Christ's promise. Jesus took that truth to His cross and resurrection. God never lies!
(Follow the Bishop at www.facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd and on Twitter @AlbBishopEd.)
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