Gifts for the Poor


"Guests are invited to bring canned goods for the parish food pantry."

As announcements go, this one was pretty mild.  The hauling of canned goods for the hungry has become a socially acceptable expectation.  Even on civic occasions those planning to attend special sporting events, conventions, or other community gatherings participate in stocking storehouses for the brokers of charity.  Some make charity a way of life; others enjoy only the fleeting altruism of tossing treats in the trunk and dropping them off for the anonymous poor.  Even if people bring nothing they generally do not argue with requests for food.

But this announcement was unusual.  It appeared on a wedding invitation.  For once, a couple had it figured out.  Marriage implies service to others.  Eucharist, even a wedding Eucharist, implies gifts for the poor.

Christians pray in many ways.  We mark the hours of the day with psalms.  We bring succor to the sick.  We gather for devotional exercises.  We pray at table at home.  But the Eucharist alone embodies an action of offering.  You can receive communion at a communion service.  But if you aspire to celebrate Eucharist, you come with gifts for the poor.

The General Instruction on the Roman Missal (49) calls for the reception of money or other gifts for the church or the poor at the time when the bread and wine are brought to the altar.  Astoundingly, the bread and wine--the elements most central to the Eucharist we celebrate--this bread and wine come to the altar accompanied by offerings for the poor.  Eucharist is thanksgiving; Eucharist is communion; and Eucharist is charity.

These gifts for the poor, "put in a suitable place but not on the altar," become central to our understanding of Eucharist.  An expression of our self-offering, they call us into a posture of service.  This communion will be not for our nurture alone--comfort food like ice cream to minimize stress.  No, this Eucharist strengthens us for charity.  Our prayer at this Eucharist resounds the more deeply within us because our selfless gift lends it sincerity and commitment.

The relationship between eucharistic communion and charitable contribution extends back to the earliest Christian generation.  The New Testament church heartily embraced the twin concepts of communion and mission.

The Acts of the Apostles introduces the reader to a community that could not separate its communal belief from its social obligations.  The believers held all things in common (2:44-45), sold what they owned and freely distributed the proceeds to those who needed them.  It seems the original arrangement just benefited the community's own circle.  Someone outside that circle, like the lame beggar at the temple (3:2), did not share from the community's economic store.  Peter and John disavowed possessing silver and gold (3:6), but giving a cure instead of a handout, who could complain?

The community's economic arrangement is restated in the next chapter (4:32-34).  Because the believers were of one heart and soul they shared all possessions in common.  In the same breath Luke states how effective their preaching was.  Small wonder.  They lived the charity they urged on others.  The believers actually sold their property, then contributed the earnings to the apostles.  (Today's economically savvy disciple reverses the order: If you give the property to the charity's board of directors and let them sell it, you get a larger tax deduction.)

Anymore, little is made of the subsequent story (5:1-11).  Ananias and Sapphira sold their property, pocketed a percentage, and lied about the size of the donation.  Peter, who caught their conspiratorial lie, intoned the efficacious prophecy of their imminent death.  Although today's ecclesial financial campaigns avoid spotlighting this incident under the slogan "Give or die," the subject earned a painting currently housed in the Vatican museums and a mosaic copy in St. Peter's.

Paul the apostle became one of the most ardent fundraisers of the early church.  He suggested that the Corinthians set aside whatever extra they earned every week for the community (1 Corinthians 16:1-2).  He prodded their sluggish giving by touting the guilt-inducing, zealous generosity of Macedonian benefactors (2 Cor 8:1-5; 9:1-2.)  He brought the gifts to Jerusalem (Acts 24:27; Romans 15:26; Galatians 2:10), having remarkably successfully solicited Gentile funds for Jewish Christians (Acts 11:27-30).

As church life matured, the gathering of gifts for the poor took its place within the celebration of the Eucharist.  Around the year 150 Justin the Martyr's first Apology (67:6) records the distribution of gifts from the wealthy to orphans, widows, the sick, the needy, the prisoner, and the vagabond.  In his treatise on works and alms (15) Cyprian (c. 200-258) criticized the rich who came to Eucharist empty-handed but partook of the offering of the poor.

In the early days, the people primarily offered the very bread and wine of the Eucharist.  Gradually, however, that became augmented then displaced with gifts for the poor.  This introduced some changes.  The bread of the eucharistic table no longer resembled the bread of one's home, which occluded the immanence of divine activity.  The people no longer directly provided the bread and wine, but only the funds to purchase them, which removed the offerings another step from personal participation.  And for those uninvolved in other charitable activity, the gift for the poor, although helpful to the needy, became a convenient way to substitute a tidy financial offering for gritty service.

The tradition of charitable giving at the Eucharist remains unbroken in church history.  As such, it fills all Christians with great pride.  Giving is good, tacet Wall Street's Gordon Gekko, who pronounced the same of greed.

Still, as a "holy thing" of the "holy people" of God, the action of giving expresses more faithfully when attention is paid to its symbolic content.

* A parish community's collection should serve not just to pay bills, but to remind one and all that ministry to the poor is part and parcel of eucharistic worship and the formation of community.  The faithful who neglect their pledge to a parish community hurt the poor and impair the parish's ability to plan effective ministry.

* The collection of stipends for Masses provides a convenient way for mourners to grieve and for the faithful to articulate their needs, but the implied commerce too often reduces the Eucharist to a mail-order business, like a florist who delivers a plant you won't bring yourself.  Sadly the real sensus fidelium about stipends is revealed in the parish secretary's oft-heard question, "How much does a Mass cost?"

* At some Masses the procession of the gifts is just a procession of things that go on tables.  Students at school Masses, for example, often bring all manner of "gifts" in the procession--bread, wine, water, the fingerbowl, the towel, the chalice, basketballs, yearbooks, and posters: signs that they haven't quite got the point.  Who can blame them?  Even the Vatican declines a collection at every papal Mass.  This well-intentioned largesse strips the Eucharist of one of its constituent parts.

Once in a while, though, like when a couple suggests you bring canned goods to the wedding, somebody gets it.  In all of history, no one got it like St. Lawrence.  As archdeacon to Pope Sixtus II in third century Rome, Lawrence was responsible for the sacred vessels of the church and the distribution of alms collected for the poor.  In 258 the Emperor Valerian apprehended the pope as part of his persecution of Christians.  En route to his death, Sixtus predicted his faithful deacon would follow him in three days.  Lawrence, aware that the authorities planned to pillage the sacred vessels under his care, sold them outright and distributed the proceeds to the poor.  When the oily prefect of Rome remarked that God brought words, not money to the world, he demanded Lawrence bring him the church's wealth.  ("Give us the money; you be rich in words.")  Three days after the pope's martyrdom Lawrence rounded up the city's poor, tarnished by misfortune, repugnant to behold.  The befuddled prefect insisted, "Show me the treasures of the church."  Lawrence wryly smiled, "These are the treasures of the church."

It cost him his life, but Lawrence scored a perfect grade in liturgical theology.  We share in the Eucharist when we share at the Eucharist.

This article first appeared in the Notre Dame Center for Pastoral Liturgy periodical, Assembly 24/5 (September 1998):34-35.

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