In his message for Lent 2008 Pope Benedict gave some concrete suggestions. He recalls the three basic Lenten "tasks" - prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Sometimes people think that these practices are passé, that Jesus has somehow spiritualized everything. You know, it's the 21st century - we don't have to get on our knees, or reach into our wallets or pass up a tempting dessert. For those who have fallen into a vague "spirituality," I ask them to re-read today's Gospel. Jesus does not say, "If you fast." He says, "When you fast." He does not say, "If you feel like praying." He says, "When you pray." Nor does he say, "Give if you happen to have something extra." No, he says, "When you give alms."
That last penitential practice - almsgiving - is what the Holy Father focuses on in this 2008 message. He notes that Jesus "became poor for us." That is what Lent, and especially Holy Week, is about: Jesus' abject poverty, his self-emptying for our salvation. He became poor for us so that we might become rich. Becoming rich refers to sharing God's life. It also includes temporal blessings. They are a sign of God's goodness, his abundance. Jesus puts those things in our hands, says Pope Benedict, so that we can assist those in need. That is what we mean by almsgiving.
The pope points out that giving alms not only helps the person who receives. More important, it helps the person who gives. Almsgiving, says the pope, is "an exercise in self-denial to free us from attachment to worldly goods." The force of material riches attracts us and they can easily become an idol. If that happens, we cut ourselves off from God. Jesus said, "You cannot serve God and mammon." The person who gives alms rejects the idol of mammon and, instead, serves God.
We will have wonderful opportunities for almsgiving during Lent. Support of your parish, of course, takes first place. I am not saying this because I am your pastor. I'm saying because the parish is where we receive the Sacraments and hear the Word of God. The parish, moreover, helps organize and focus our service to brothers and sisters.
Beyond the parish and the diocese, we do what we can to reach out to the poor in our world. Many of you have joined me in doing this by supporting the Mary Bloom Center. And, throughout our country, people aid the poor by taking home the Rice Bowl. If you are like me, you will need a child's help to form this cardboard into a container. But when you do, you can place it on your dining table. The Rice Bowl will remind of the three tasks: fasting, prayer and almsgiving.
I hear people say, "I cannot give any more. I am already stretched to the limit." I understand that. But is that not the meaning of the cross. Jesus extended his arms to embrace all humanity. Instead of stressing about all the demands on us, what we need to do is join ourselves with Jesus. He became poor for our sake. As Pope Benedict underscores, almsgiving unites us with his self-giving.
As your receive the ashes at this Mass, I invite you to make a good Lent: to do some voluntary fasting, to find new moments for prayer and - in response to the message of the Holy Father - help the needy and yourself by giving alms. Welcome to Lent!
From Archives (Ash Wednesday homilies):
Return to Me
The Purpose of Lent
Two Cheers for Catholic Guilt
Don't Waste This Crisis
When You Give Alms
Back to the Basics
Dealing With Guilt
Exercise of Holy Desire
Homilies for First Sunday of Lent ("Temptation Sunday"):
2013: Do Not Talk to the Devil