[Week 4 of the “Imagination in Action” reflection series, Theme this week: Almsgiving]
I don’t think there is a movie that I have watched as often in my adult life as The Muppet Christmas Carol. More than ten years ago it became a tradition in my family to watch it every Christmas, and I always look forward to it! I think it is the best version of Charles Dickens’ classic tale. The songs and humor bring out the joy of the story, but the acting of Michael Caine and the narration of Gonzo (surprisingly) supply a real gravity to the serious aspects. In the end, it’s hard to imagine someone watching this movie without being drawn into the joy of Ebeneezer Scrooge’s conversion to love expressed in charity to his neighbor.
It gives a powerful image of the classic idea of almsgiving. We mainly use this word in terms of giving money, but it’s origin/etymology is even wider. It comes from the Old English aelmysse, connected ultimately with the Greek word eleēmosunē (“compassion”) from the root word eleos (“mercy”). This is the same root as the Spanish word “limosnas” and the “Kyrie eleison” that we say at Mass (“Lord, have mercy”). So, in this way, “almsgiving” invites us to all of the works of mercy, which are usually grouped as seven corporal works (caring for the body – such as giving food, shelter, clothing, or caring for the sick) and seven spiritual works (caring for the spirit – such as comforting, counseling, or teaching).
Almsgiving is most often spoken of as one of the three practices of Lent (along with prayer and fasting). St Peter Chrysologus speaks of the connection between these three in one of his sermons: “Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them… if you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing… Fasting bears no fruit unless it is watered by mercy. Fasting dries up when mercy dries up. Mercy is to fasting as rain is to the earth. However much you may cultivate your heart, clear the soil of your nature, root out vices, sow virtues, if you do not release the springs of mercy, your fasting will bear no fruit. When you fast, if your mercy is thin your harvest will be thin; when you fast, what you pour out in mercy overflows into your barn. Therefore, do not lose by saving, but gather in by scattering… You will not be allowed to keep what you have refused to give to others.”
Scrooge first appears in the story as one who represents this “dried up fasting.” He lives a cold, austere life in which his wealth bears no fruit. He takes life from others (figuratively if not literally), and seems to have no true relationship with God or any other human being. After his encounter with the three ghosts, though, he is transformed. Scrooge begins to radiate love. He is experiencing the truth of the Gospel that the harvest is abundant when mercy is scattered – the paradox that Christ’s love on the Cross pours out new life.
Some people surely do struggle with greed in the way that Scrooge does, but I think for most there are different obstacles to mercy. It is not that someone is unwilling, but maybe feels unable to do more when faced with all of the challenges of their personal life. Or, perhaps we do not know where to begin in the light of all of the needs out there. Perhaps we have been burned by a scam or other situation that makes us hesitant to try again.
Where do we begin? We can begin through prayer by asking, “Lord, who can I reach out to today/this week?” Here we can discern a corporal or spiritual work of mercy that is within our capability. Another question may be: “who can I connect with to help practice love of neighbor in my life?” A group or organization can often accomplish more than we are able to alone. As a pastor, I would like to develop ways that my parishes can strengthen their outreach and coordinate the many good things already happening.
The details are perhaps staggering, but let us keep the vision of Christ’s love in front of our eyes to inspire us for the future. May He keep the fires burning in our imagination to inspire us when the way is difficult. I’d like to end with some words from Scrooge’s closing song in The Muppet Christmas Carol: “With an open heart that is wide awake, I do make this promise: Every breath I take, Will be used now to sing your praise, And to beg you to share my days, With a loving guarantee, that even if we part- I will hold you close with a thankful heart.”