Morning reflection: Pope Saint Leo the Great on forgiveness and almsgiving

In today’s Office of Readings we find a sermon by Pope Saint Leo the Great about some elements of Lent: the forgiveness of sins and the giving of alms:

Dear friends,

At every moment the earth is full of the mercy of God, and nature itself is a lesson for all the faithful in the worship of God. The heavens, the sea and all that is in them bear witness to the goodness and omnipotence of their Creator, and the marvellous beauty of the elements as they obey him demands from the intelligent creation a fitting expression of its gratitude. But with the return of that season marked out in a special way by the mystery of our redemption, and of the days that lead up to the paschal feast, we are summoned more urgently to prepare ourselves by a purification of spirit.

The special note of the paschal feast is this: the whole Church rejoices in the forgiveness of sins. It rejoices in the forgiveness not only of those who are then reborn in holy baptism but also of those who are already numbered among God’s adopted children. Initially, men are made new by the rebirth of baptism. Yet there still is required a daily renewal to repair the shortcomings of our mortal nature, and whatever degree of progress has been made there is no one who should not be more advanced. All must therefore strive to ensure that on the day of redemption no one may be found in the sins of his former life.

Dear friends, what the Christian should be doing at all times should be done now with greater care and devotion, so that the Lenten fast enjoined by the apostles may be fulfilled, not simply by abstinence from food but above all by the renunciation of sin.

There is no more profitable practice as a companion to holy and spiritual fasting than that of almsgiving. This embraces under the single name of mercy many excellent works of devotion, so that the good intentions of all the faithful may be of equal value, even where their means are not. The love that we owe both God and man is always free from any obstacle that would prevent us from having a good intention. The angels sang: Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth. The person who shows love and compassion to those in any kind of affliction is blessed, not only with the virtue of good will but also with the gift of peace.

The works of mercy are innumerable. Their very variety brings this advantage to those who are true Christians, that in the matter of almsgiving not only the rich and affluent but also those of average means and the poor are able to play their part. Those who are unequal in their capacity to give can be equal in the love within their hearts.

St. Leo the Great was pope from 440 to 461, but his words still have meaning for us today. And why would they not, after all? There are two points especially which we should also take to heart in our own practice of Lent; First, the saintly pope speaks of sins that need to be forgiven. He points out that, despite our sins having been forgiven out our baptism, we still need to seek forgiveness ” to repair the shortcomings of our mortal nature”. Mortality and our personal shortcomings are here linked, and the reason for that is easily found: both have their origin in the Fall of Man. In Genesis we read God’s warning to Adam: “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you are not to eat; for, the day you eat of that, you are doomed to die” (2:17). In the following chapter we find that man did not heed this warning, with death as a result. Here we have our mortality. Our broken nature as a consequence of the Fall explains our tendency to sin. We are mortal, and the reason for our mortality requires us to be watchful for our sins and search out God’s forgiveness whenever required. Since Lent is a time of purification and converting, or returning to face Christ (to borrow a quote from a recently heard homily), asking for forgiveness in the sacrament of Confession is an inherent element of this time.

The second point in the above sermon concerns the giving of alms. St. Leo rightly points out that none of us are limited in this, because the word ‘almsgiving’ covers a wide variety of activities. “Not only the rich and affluent but also those of average means and the poor are able to play their part. Those who are unequal in their capacity to give can be equal in the love within their hearts”, he writes. And that’s important to realise. Don’t have the means to donate money to a charity? Don’t worry. You are able to give alms in other ways. “The person who shows love and compassion to those in any kind of affliction is blessed, not only with the virtue of good will but also with the gift of peace”. Be creative this Lent, you are not limited, because  the love of God is not limited.

Lastly, I want to end this reflection by focussing on one sentence from Pope St. Leo the Great’s sermon (emphasis mine). It’s worth reminding ourselves of frequently:

Dear friends, what the Christian should be doing at all times should be done now with greater care and devotion, so that the Lenten fast enjoined by the apostles may be fulfilled, not simply by abstinence from food but above all by the renunciation of sin.