“Giving alms” is a powerful concept with a rich history, but even the phrase itself can sound mysterious to our modern ears.
What does it mean to give alms? Why is almsgiving a central pillar of Lenten practice, alongside prayer and fasting? What do we give to the poor during Lent? How can we expand our ideas for almsgiving this Lent beyond vague ideas about giving money to those less fortunate?
With these questions in mind, here are 20 creative examples of almsgiving during Lent along with a brief look at why almsgiving is important, the history of almsgiving in the Bible and how to give alms even if you don’t have much money to spare.
Why is almsgiving important?
Almsgiving is a spiritual and religious practice that strengthens our love for others, increases our detachment and contributes to greater social justice.
This threefold meaning of almsgiving helps us understand why it is so central to the season of Lent. During Lent, Jesus invites us into a deeper journey with him, and to journey with Jesus Christ means to live as Christ lived.
Throughout his ministry, we see Jesus ministering in a special way to sinners, tax collectors, the impoverished, the sick and anyone else on the margins of society. With the rich young man and with the scribes and Pharisees who persecute him, we see Jesus chastising them and calling them to a higher order of love, mercy and material detachment so that they too can serve the poor as they ought.
When we give alms, we are making a concrete donation of ourselves (through money, time, talent or service) to others. The concreteness of almsgiving is crucial. Although prayer for others is worthy and good, almsgiving helps us say, in crystal clear terms: “Here is what I can offer, and I offer it out of love for you (and God) because I care about your welfare.”
Almsgiving in the Bible
The Bible is full of references to the practice of almsgiving. In Hebrew, the word for alms literally means “justice” or “righteousness.” Almsgiving in the Bible is associated strongly with an idea we first see expressed in Genesis, that we are called to be our brother’s keeper. To care for the poor, especially if we have the means, is not simply an optional virtuous act, it is a moral imperative.
We know that practices of almsgiving and tithing were widespread and expected as part of faithful religious practice for the Jews, not only for the rich but for every person. The Gospel of Luke tells us the beautiful story of the widow with her two coins who gives the little she has out of her poverty and is praised and blessed by Christ for her generosity.
The Bible presents almsgiving as a nonnegotiable part of loving and serving our neighbor, even if what we have to give seems small or insignificant. The tangible gift, not the amount, is the point.
Ideas for Almsgiving During Lent
Now that we’ve talked about the importance of almsgiving, it’s time to get creative with our personal call to give alms. There are so many ways to make this a joyful and fruitful spiritual practice!
These almsgiving examples are meant to be a springboard for your own thoughts and ideas so you can shape them to the context of your own life. Like them all? Try a couple this Lent and resolve to continue creative almsgiving throughout the rest of the year!
Almsgiving Examples if You Want to Give Locally
Sometimes we get so used to giving alms in the form of regular tithes to our parish or to a favorite charity that we forget the more immediate ways we can give to the people around us, whether family, friends or those in the larger community.
- Make or pay for dinner for someone you know. Do you know any young expecting couples? A young relative away at school? A mom that’s just had a baby? A family who you know is struggling through illness or job loss? Send them a check or a Venmo payment (or make something yourself if you’d like), and tell them to enjoy a stress-free dinner. You never know how much these little things can help others feel loved and cared for.
- Think about your immediate and extended family. Is there a young person trying to buy a car or make rent? Could this relative use a little help with the mortgage this month? Can you think of some item you can offer which would make someone’s life much easier? Don’t hesitate this Lent to be generous to those who are closest to you.
- Find out which food bank or homeless shelter is nearest to you and make a donation. Ideally, pay a visit to the place and offer your time in addition to your financial support.
- Make designated car kits to offer to anyone you encounter who is experiencing homelessness. There are few things more painful than seeing a fellow human in need and not having anything on hand to help. These car kits can be simple: a water bottle, a $5 bill, a pair of socks, an energy bar, and a printout with numbers and addresses of local shelters or places they can find help—all in a big Ziploc bag. If you make and keep five to 10 of these in your car at all times, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to minister to your brother or sister in Christ on the street—people who are so often ignored—and be the hands of Christ to them.
Almsgiving Examples if You Want to Practice Detachment
Learning the spiritual discipline of detachment is one of the most important and difficult spiritual practices. Whether we are too attached to material things or to our own pride and sense of control, almsgiving can help us.
Here are some simple almsgiving ideas for Lent to help us detach from both our sense of control and our physical, material goods.
- Let your children pick how you will give alms each week of Lent. This is a great way to practice detachment and to draw your family into the Lenten practice of almsgiving. You might be surprised at the ideas and inspirations they have! Children are often more naturally generous than adults.
- Commit to giving money to the next good cause that crosses your path. God is in control of all aspects of your life. He knows how our money can help better than we ever could. Give over control to him and promise to donate X amount to the next cause that crosses your path, whether on your social media feeds, on a billboard or through word of mouth.
- Ask your pastor or spiritual advisor what he thinks or if he is aware of some need you can help meet. Sometimes God is just waiting to work through the words of others if we will only let him!
- Clean out unnecessary items and articles of clothing and donate them to a homeless shelter or Catholic-run thrift shop. Lent is all about making space for Christ, and sometimes the best way to make space is literally to get rid of things. This is not a chance to get rid of junk or to donate things that are of no value to anyone. Challenge yourself to get rid of things that you may like, but do not need, and that may help someone else.
Almsgiving Examples if You Don’t Have a Lot of Money
“[Jesus] looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.” Luke 21: 1-4
This past year has been tough on many people’s wallets. If you are contemplating almsgiving with a sinking feeling in your heart, you are not alone. Jesus Christ sees your struggles and your needs and he will treasure the generosity of whatever you can offer, even if it seems small.
Here are some ways you can give alms this Lent even if you can’t spare much money.
- Give your time or talent to your local Catholic church. This is a great way to be generous if you can’t spare any money! Giving your time doesn’t have to be elaborate. It can mean singing in your choir, offering to help out at the local food bank or wiping down the pews with disinfectant after Mass (a much-needed help in this COVID era!).
- Pick one item that you would have purchased for yourself during Lent, and give alms in that amount. This can be challenging when money is tight, but there is almost always some little thing that we can give up. Even if it’s your one coffee treat a month, offering that $3.50 to God and the poor instead will store up great treasure in heaven.
- Buy one extra item at the grocery store and donate it to a food bank. Again, if you are struggling to buy your own groceries these days, this may seem like a tall order. But can you manage one extra can of beans or soup? That’s all it takes to be generous with others even in your own need.
- Offer to take on tasks for a friend or loved one. You may not be able to offer money, but you can still offer a generous spirit. Think about ways you can take on tasks and responsibilities from those around you to help lighten their burden. Can you do your elderly neighbor’s grocery shopping? Take your nieces or nephews to the park to give their parents a break? Help your roommate study for a test or quiz? These small acts of service are one of the best ways we can love those around us.
Almsgiving Examples if You Want to Pick a Theme
Do you have a particular passion or interest, either in the realm of work or a hobby? Perhaps you have always wanted to learn more about a specific topic or current event, but never found the time to?
This Lent, try almsgiving but with a specific theme in mind! This will allow you to combine generosity with the opportunity to learn more about something that engages your imagination and interests.
- Interested in music? Find a nonprofit that offers music instruction to underprivileged kids and donate your time or money to help.
- Interested in the arts? Many Catholic artists are struggling to make ends meet due to COVID-19. Find a Catholic artist who needs support, and purchase something from their store or make a donation to help them in their work.
- Interested in foreign affairs or mission work? Pick a country that interests you and see if you can find a way to support the local church there. In many countries, Catholics and Christians are facing terrible persecution and they need our help and prayers.
- Passionate about supporting women with unplanned pregnancies? Do some research into the local and national nonprofits that support these women, and give a little money each week of Lent to a different organization.
Almsgiving Examples if You Want to Strengthen Your Prayer Life
Prayer and almsgiving are the peanut butter and jelly of the spiritual life: They work best together.
If you are interested in strengthening your prayer this Lent, try to combine habits of prayer with little gifts of alms.
- Make a small donation in thanksgiving for the help of a favorite saint. Whether it’s lighting a candle in front of their statue in your parish or donating a small sum to a religious order or charity, Lent can be a great time to intensify small practices of devotion, like asking the intercession of a favorite saint.
- Offer Masses for the souls of those you love. Participating in the Mass is the highest form of prayer we can make. Ask to have Masses said for your special intentions and make a donation in thanksgiving.
- Combine regular visits to a church for prayer with small donations to the poor box. What if you made a prayer commitment this Lent and, every time you went to church to pray, you made a small offering? What a beautiful way to remind ourselves that we are meant to live for God and others, not just ourselves!
- Make a pilgrimage and donation to a sacred site. The tradition of pilgrimage is as old and beautiful as that of almsgiving. This Lent, choose one weekend to drive or walk to a specific sacred place (it doesn’t have to be far away), praying for a special intention and offering penance along the way. Then make a donation there in honor of your journey. These mini pilgrimages help us keep our eyes focused on our life’s larger journey to be with Christ in heaven.
Becoming the Body of Christ on Earth This Lent
Hopefully, armed with this list of ideas for almsgiving during Lent, you are well-prepared to give in a generous, creative, fun and meaningful way—no matter the amount you can afford. Our call to give alms comes from our Heavenly Father who longs for us to care for one another, as he cares for us.
St. Teresa of Avila said: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body.”
As we strive to embody the words of this great saint, let us go forth into Lent with joy, prepared to be Christ’s hands, feet, eyes and body to those in need around us through the practice of almsgiving.