Bishop's Column

The Law of the Gift, a final Lenten Lesson from Benedict XVI

During the last public address before his retirement, our pope-emeritus Benedict XVI said something that struck me deeply: "One receives one’s life precisely when one offers it as a gift."

This teaching was part of Benedict’s reflection on what it meant for him to become Pope. As the "Servant of the Servants of God," he could not live for himself. He had to give up his private life and personal interests, for the good of the Church and humanity.

But this sacrifice was not simply a loss. In giving up his personal life and becoming the servant of all, Benedict XVI gained something greater: he entered into a deeper communion with all who love and follow Christ.

"The Pope," he reflected, "has truly brothers and sisters, sons and daughters all over the world … He feels safe in the embrace of their communion, because he no longer belongs to himself, but he belongs to all and all are truly his own."

Benedict XVI found his life’s deepest meaning in the sacrifice of his pontificate. He gave up those things that were "his," and opened his arms to the entire world. "One receives one’s life precisely when one offers it as a gift."

In those words, our pope-emeritus was not simply reflecting on his own experience. He was expressing a supreme truth of the Christian life.

We should take this truth to heart during Lent, as we respond to the Lord’s call for generous almsgiving and other forms of charity.

Our sacrifices probably won’t be as dramatic, or as public, as those of Benedict XVI. But they will follow the same sacred rule. We will become fully alive only by giving ourselves completely to God and others.

Benedict XVI’s predecessor and friend, Blessed John Paul II, spoke often of this same mysterious truth, which he called "The Law of the Gift": "Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself." I know this sounds, at first glance, to be counterintuitive, but it strikes a deep cord of truth within in the heart of every human person.

By describing this reality as a "law," John Paul II made it clear that generosity is not optional, not something we can "take or leave." Our giving takes different forms, depending on our talents and circumstances. But the Law of the Gift is universal, written into our humanity.

Generosity is a daily task, and can’t be relegated only to certain seasons. The Church, however, does urge us to focus on giving and generosity during Lent. Charitable almsgiving has always been among the "three pillars of Lent," together with prayer and fasting.

As an expression of the Church’s faith, almsgiving takes on a new spiritual depth. It becomes a means of entering into our deepest identity, as members of Christ’s mystical Body. In accordance with the Law of the Gift, we find our identity in Christ only by giving of ourselves "in his name."

Christian charity, after all, does not merely imitate God’s love. It is a direct expression of that same love, and a real participation in it.

When we give to others in Jesus’ name, we offer more than just material help and practical assistance. We also give them the love of Christ in a tangible form. We become, in a mysterious way, the "hands of God."

In this way, our Lenten almsgiving leads us more deeply into the mystery of the Church: the mystery of our union with Christ, our life as members of his Body.

Among the many forms of self-giving, generosity toward the poor has a special precedence. By giving to those most in need, we discover that we are their brothers and sisters. We learn the difference between our own "wants" and "needs." And we grow in gratitude for what God has given us.

Charitable almsgiving is an essential part of Lent, for all of these reasons. But almsgiving is not the only form of self-giving we should be practicing.

There are countless ways to make "a sincere gift of ourselves" in everyday life. There is no part of life that cannot be transfigured by the spirit of generosity.

Alongside our almsgiving, we can also practice greater attentiveness to others – opening ourselves to their joys and struggles. We can set aside time for friends and family we may have neglected. These simple practices are powerful means of sanctification, if we approach them in a spirit of self-giving love.

It is easy to believe that we must cling to what is "ours." This message is constantly reinforced by the world around us.

But this message is false. We gain our lives by giving them away. We lose things only by clinging to them.

God is constantly inviting us to receive true life, by offering ourselves as a gift. When we practice generosity, we will discover the truth of Benedict XVI’s last teaching: that we are most alive when we "no longer belong to ourselves."

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