Charity and Lent

14 March 2023

Dear readers, Great Lent is a time of strenuous, spiritual struggle with ourselves (less sleep, less nutrition, less ease and preoccupation with things we like doing, greater participation in the services and prayers, and so on). I don’t know, however, whether we truly realize the extent to which another fundamental aim is charity towards others. Apart from the general principle expressed in the Sermon on the Mount (‘Blessed are the merciful* for they shall obtain mercy’, Matth. 5, 7), the aim of the fast is that we should spend less on ourselves, in terms of quality and quantity, as compared to other times of the year; and that any surplus funds should be given to others as charity. Among other things, this is what the Gospel of the Judgement tells us on the third preparatory Sunday of the Triodio: that we should serve the needs of others, because Christ takes this as a gift to himself.

It’s true that, on the first Sunday of the Triodio, we learn that, in accordance with the law of Moses, the pharisee gave a tithe of his wealth to the synagogue and, by extension to other people. He did so, however, within the context of a duty, not secretly and from a kind heart. It was a matter of self-aggrandizement: he was conceited about his actions and this is why, in the end, his prayer wasn’t heeded by God. He thought that, because of his good religious practices, God would be obliged to save him, bless him and provide him with every good thing in life. But fasting and prayer are linked to humility (which the publican had and which is why his prayer was heard).

In an article on this subject, Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol has this to say: ‘Alms-giving contributes greatly to prayer. If you want to pray, you have to become a charitable person. Charitable in all senses of the word. When you say a kind word to another person, offer something or give alms, this moves the soul to prayer. It’s been shown that, when charitable people stand in prayer, their prayer rises to God, who accepts it. Abbas Isaac says: “An uncharitable ascetic is a barren tree”. In other words, no matter what ascetic struggles you undertake, in terms of prayer, fasting and vigils, if your heart isn’t charitable it doesn’t reach out to others in love, it doesn’t feel for others the same affection that God does; in which case it’s like a tree that doesn’t bear fruit. The fathers say that alms-giving alone is enough to save people. Charitable people are like God. What do we say in the divine liturgy? ‘For you are compassionate and love mankind’. God is compassionate. Those who are charitable are like God and he can’t deny them his grace’.

God loves the charitable who give willingly, with a cheerful countenance, and also of their own volition. Alms-giving that is begrudged or enforced is unacceptable and execrable. The root of charity lies in the heart. It begins in the heart and ends in our hand. Charity warms when there’s the flame of love. Alms-giving without  love is cold and desultory. It’s a dead body without light or sun. It’s a flower without beauty or scent. When you give without love, you insult. Because where’s the value in the most wonderful and expensive gift if it’s offered without a smile?

In his thirteenth homily on 2 Corinthians, Saint John Chrysostom says that alms-giving means not just giving money but also giving with a feeling of Christian affection. We have to do good, provide help and devote time willingly, deliberately, from the heart, with respect and unfeigned love for the poor. We should not harbor any feeling of condescension, frustration, anger or ill-temper. ‘Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver’ (2 Cor. 9, 7). ‘ Break your bread with the hungry and bring the poor and homeless into your house’ says the Prophet Isaiah (30, 7). And all of this should be done whole-heartedly, as Saint Gregory the Theologian tells us. Saint Paul tells us how to behave in such circumstances: ‘those who encourage [should do so] with exhortation; those who give, with liberality; those who lead, with diligence; those who are charitable, with cheerfulness (Rom. 12, 8). If you behave like this, your eagerness will double the value of your good deed. But if this good deed is performed grudgingly or out of necessity, it can’t bring joy.

So, no matter how penitential and mournful Lent may seem initially, in essence it’s a search for the joy which comes from giving alms to any suffering person, in the same spirit as Saint Nicholas, who provided a dowry for each of the daughters of a man who was thinking of introducing them to a bad life-style in order to raise money. Saint Nicholas threw the money through the window so that nobody would know who had performed the good deed and therefore he wouldn’t be praised for it. Let’s not allow this Lent to be one-dimensional and unfruitful but let’s become charitable, so that we might obtain mercy from the Lord, the righteous Judge. Amen.

*We have a saying in English to the effect that ‘The Greeks have a word for it’. Alas, in this instance, this is not the case. Ελεήμων (eleïmôn) means ‘merciful’, ‘compassionate’, ‘charitable’ and ‘an almsgiver’. Wherever one of these words has been used in this translation, readers should also bear in mind the other connotations.