“Alms are expressions of covenant mercy,” said John Bergsma in a talk he gave for Franciscan University’s Lenten mission in Christ the King Chapel on Tuesday at 9 p.m.
Focusing on the Lenten practice of almsgiving, Bergsma, who holds a doctorate in theology from Notre Dame University, explained the connection between almsgiving in the greater spiritual life, particularly focusing on the connections between almsgiving and covenantal language in the Bible.
Bergsma emphasized that almsgiving ought to be a personal act, since “in the ancient and medieval world, alms were oriented toward building relationships,” as opposed to the modern understanding of writing a check or making an electronic donation to people one will never or rarely see.
Exploring the root of the word alms, Bergsma explained that it was a German corruption of the Greek word “eleemosume,” which literally translates to “charitable gifts.” This Greek word is found in Matthew 9:13, in which Jesus talks about mercy in relation to his healing ministry, a direct fulfillment of Hosea 6:6, said Bergsma. The Hebrew word used in Hosea is “hesed,” which is intended to convey God’s covenantal love. Thus, said Bergsma, the giving of alms is really all about fulfilling our covenantal obligations with God.
Since, in Bergsma’s words, covenants are “always oriented to the building of familial relations,” and so almsgiving really should be a concrete, personal act that “restore(s) and unite(s) the impoverished person (or persons) with the rest of the community.”
Thus, almsgiving goes beyond mere charitable acts (commonly called “works of mercy”) because they, said Bergsma, are “analogously connected with the Eucharist.”
Sophomore Robbie Simon was particularly struck by this “metaphysical bond between the Eucharist and almsgiving, (as well as) giving bread to the poor as a priestly act.”
Both almsgiving and the Eucharist are sacred acts, and whoever partakes in them takes on somewhat of a priestly role that does not mask the hierarchical, ministerial priesthood, but complements it instead, said Bergsma.
Bergsma said this is so because “both the Eucharist and alms are a kind of concretization” of the mercy of God, depicted in Christian medieval art.
Senior Scott Peters noticed that since almsgiving, as a sacred act, concretizes the mercy of God, almsgiving is intended to “bring about [mercy] in our everyday lives” and not just within the church building.
Graduate student Peter Birri said almsgiving is “not just simply giving to the Church,” but rather is a radical self-gift to God and fulfillment of our baptismal call.
The talk was sponsored by Christ the King Chapel, and the night concluded with a holy half hour.