Charity is often viewed as interchangeable with the word, Almsgiving. However, the latter term is narrower, referring to the giving some of material thing or need. Charity on the other hand is tied to the Greek word, Agape. C.S. Lewis calls Agape the “Unconditional Love”, which God has for creation. This is the love which we are commanded to have for Him and for Humanity (Philanthropy), of which the other Loves (Storge, Eros, Philia) are reflections of, but subordinate to in their essence. Lost? Lets bring this back to Jesus’s words in Matthew 22:37-40 where He is asked what is the greatest commandment:
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
That is charity in a nutshell, and boy is it a daunting task. Advent calls us back to this course, to enjoin in our fasting, the act of self-giving, of love.
Charity is not a thing that we do to feel good. Rarely does Christ ask of us to do anything for an emotional response. It is therefore necessary for us to get over the idea that we are to do only those charities that are fashionable. You know, the kind that make us feel good and allow us to have a fun old time with friends while we are doing it. This is the sort of thing you see peddled by feel-good self help folks who tout the psychological studies that indicate charity lets you live longer. Regardless of this, the Fathers of the Church say we are to empty ourselves, as Christ did, trusting not in our emotions and feelings, but forcing ourselves for what our hearts and minds know is true and right. Whatever way our emotions and feelings blow, we who are called to be faithful. Thankfully the Church is replete with examples of how this is done for every walk of life we have.
Saint Barbara whom we commemorated earlier in the month, loved her parents wholly despite their devotion to pagan idols and their attempts to dissuade her from the Christian faith. Saint Nicholas, who gave joy to the poor children of Anatolia by giving them coins and gifts in anticipation of the Nativity Feast. Or Saint Spyridon, who was known everywhere for his hospitality to strangers even in the dead of night. Like the saints, we are called to imitate Christ by being called out of our comfort zone to give of what we have. Whether it is time, or alms, or even our life as Our Savior says: “There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends.” (John 15:13)
Let me turn your attention to this passage from 1 Corinthians. Saint Paul gives us a good idea about what the loving, charitable Christian ought be:
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Cor 13:1-7)
There is still time. Find something, perhaps your family or friends know of some help that may be needed at your parish or the local soup kitchen. Or next time you get change in single dollar bills, keep a few in your car, so that when you see someone in need, you can give them your spare money. Or better yet, make a resolve to talk to the homeless you encounter and see what in particular they need and try to do that. Do you have relatives who are obnoxious or insensitive to your faith coming to dinner on Christmas Eve? Be Merry, pray if you can, and be charitable to them. You are in fact the hands and feet of Christ in this instance, how beautiful is that? So don’t despair if you have done nothing extra yet. When the Nativity comes, rejoice; and in rejoicing remember the gifts of the Magi and the gift of Christ to all of Creation, and in the days the come, strive to keep the Incarnation in your life. Advent and Lent are not the only times we practice Charity, but they are times appointed for us to remember it.
A Blessed Advent!