The American Thanksgiving holiday and the quickly approaching universal festival of Christmas have become and perhaps always have been opportunities for giving. In late November parish halls are filled with baskets of cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie mix, fresh vegetables and cheery desserts awaiting a fresh turkey which will then be distributed to needing families. Throughout December church vestibules will feature a bare-branched tree which, instead of boasting leaves, will sprout gift suggestions for the disadvantaged. A pair of mittens, a woolen scarf, a gift card to a local market, a child’s toy, a bag of toiletries; these are some of the practical suggestions that will bring a bit of comfort to a neighbor in modest circumstances. More ambitious projects that take some of the bite of December’s chill are, for example, the men’s shelters at Harvest Community Church in Woonsocket and Emmanuel House in South Providence as well as the Diocese of Providence’s much appreciated “Keep The Heat On” campaign that provides warmth during the winter for families in challenging circumstances.
Charity, of course, has been a hallmark of a Christian society since the Apostles first preached the Word to the various cities of the Mediterranean world. One of St. Paul’s great responsibilities was taking up a collection amid his travels for the mother Church at Jerusalem which had fallen on hard times. And, of course, charity certainly pre-dates Christianity. Thoughtfulness toward one’s neighbor was indeed a mark of ancient Jewish society as the Scriptures well testify. Deuteronomy instructs: “Give generously to the poor and do so without a grudging heart.” Proverbs insists in one spot: “Open your mouth, judge righteously, and please the cause of the poor and needy.” And again in Proverbs: “Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered.”
Believers should not be surprised then when they hear the advice that St. John the Baptist offers to his mixed audience in this coming Sunday’s Gospel. John’s message was not simply one of apocalyptic foreboding, warning his hearers to flee from the wrath to come. The Baptist is also quite clear about the day to day responsibilities that must characterize the true believer. In very practical words, St. John offers the crowds certain standards for reforming their social conduct. To the crowds in general, the precursor advises: “Whoever has two tunics should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” Again to the tax-collectors St. John insists, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.” And to the soldiers the Baptist demands, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.” These are admonitions that could have emanated from the mouth of Jesus Christ or St. Paul or perhaps especially from St. James who literally defined religion as charity: “Religion pure and undefiled before our God and Father is this: to help orphans and widows in their tribulations and keep oneself unspotted from the world.”
The Christian world at large can be consoled that the message of charity toward neighbor has ever been a vital force within the believing community. Catholics are of course familiar with St. Martin sharing his cloak with the chilled beggar and St. Vincent DePaul rescuing orphans from the streets of Paris and certainly Mother Teresa welcoming the needy from around the world. But the flame of effective charity has burned brightly in the lives of many Protestant Christians as well. William Wilberforce, a disciple of Methodism, was a significant force in eradicating the slave trade from Britain. Evangelical Protestants performed the same service here in America. The nineteenth century Society of Friends, the Quakers, were effective agents of much needed prison reform, demanding more humane living conditions while handing out Bibles in hopes of changing criminal hearts, hence the label “penitentiary.” The Salvation Army’s low-key ministrations to the needy are as extensive as they are practical.
Some have argued that what the poor need is not charity but justice. Charity can be condescending and it can be cold, as Dickens’ novels well attest. And charity may also encourage the needy to postpone resolving their difficult situations. But, as Pope Benedict XVI contends in his letter Deus Caritas Est, the Christian world is large enough for both charity and justice. Justice is the work of governments which Christians must dutifully encourage. Charity is the work of individuals in which every Christian should be involved. Good cheer comes in many packages. Christians should have a hand in all such endeavors.