This past Sunday, I read The Sparkle Box to a group of children. The premise behind this book is that a family notes the things they do to help other people during the Christmas season. They write down their efforts- donating to blankets, funding a well, giving mittens- and put the slips of paper in a sparkly box under the tree. Their deeds are their gift to Jesus on his birthday.
As I read the story to the kids, who were very engaged, I also explained how we could do this kind of thing, not just at Christmas, but also during any time of the year. Even as I spoke, I watched the reactions of parents. I could see some who were nodded and interested. I could also see those who were skeptical and some who frowned.
I knew some of the frowners wanted to point out that the man who was sleeping in the park could have made better choices, that food distribution goes to support “welfare queens”, that building wells doesn’t help people change their system or their behavior. We have moved from understanding “charity” not to be associated with caritas (Latin: costliness, esteem, affection), but to be something that is anathema to many, including those who might give and those who might receive.
We argue about enabling, about worthiness, about “feel-good” measures. We lament and, often, we become resigned to systems and ways of thinking that seem unchangeable. Injustice and a culture of death seem insurmountable. Thus, charity becomes something we all wrestle with, that causes mixed feelings, that is never elevated to the caritas and mutual benefit that is the desire of God- when we are commanded and commended to the care of the poor.
This week was filled with gushing commentary on Evangelii Gaudium, the urgent letter from Pope Francis to clergy, religious, and all people of faith in the world. Some people could not say enough about the letter, which lifted up the plight of the poor, urged joy in evangelism, and encouraged a posture of reason and rationality among the Church’s faithful. Others howled that the letter encouraged “Marxism” and denounced capitalism.
Pope Francis never mentions capitalism at all, but instead speaks firmly and forcefully against the way that money has come to possess our minds and habits, rather than being a tool of or for them. The pursuit of money causes people, churches, governments, and nations to trample over what is perceived as weak or weakness. The greater gain triumphs over the greater good.
In abandoning caritas, we reject the truth of Mary’s Magnificat- that God can, has, and will bring down those who are in high places and lift up the lowly. God’s desire and plan is for those who are hungry to feast and for those who are wealthy to learn what it means to do without. We grow used to hearing arguments about people who “don’t try” or who “game the system”. We feel frustrated by the assumptions we make about the people around us, without knowing their whole story. Exhausted by what seems to be a never-ending need, we start to dial back our efforts- certain that the problem can never be fixed.
Pope Francis writes:
Realities are more important than ideas
231. There also exists a constant tension between ideas and realities. Realities simply are, whereas ideas are worked out. There has to be continuous dialogue between the two, lest ideas become detached from realities. It is dangerous to dwell in the realm of words alone, of images and rhetoric. So a third principle comes into play: realities are greater than ideas. This calls for rejecting the various means of masking reality: angelic forms of purity, dictatorships of relativism, empty rhetoric, objectives more ideal than real, brands of ahistorical fundamentalism, ethical systems bereft of kindness, intellectual discourse bereft of wisdom.
232. Ideas – conceptual elaborations – are at the service of communication, understanding, and praxis. Ideas disconnected from realities give rise to ineffectual forms of idealism and nominalism, capable at most of classifying and defining, but certainly not calling to action. What calls us to action are realities illuminated by reason. Formal nominalism has to give way to harmonious objectivity. Otherwise, the truth is manipulated, cosmetics take the place of real care for our bodies… We have politicians – and even religious leaders – who wonder why people do not understand and follow them, since their proposals are so clear and logical. Perhaps it is because they are stuck in the realm of pure ideas and end up reducing politics or faith to rhetoric. Others have left simplicity behind and have imported a rationality foreign to most people.
233. Realities are greater than ideas. This principle has to do with incarnation of the word and its being put into practice: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is from God” (1 Jn 4:2). The principle of reality, of a word already made flesh and constantly striving to take flesh anew, is essential to evangelization. It helps us to see that the Church’s history is a history of salvation, to be mindful of those saints who inculturated the Gospel in the life of our peoples and to reap the fruits of the Church’s rich bimillennial tradition, without pretending to come up with a system of thought detached from this treasury, as if we wanted to reinvent the Gospel. At the same time, this principle impels us to put the word into practice, to perform works of justice and charity which make that word fruitful. Not to put the word into practice, not to make it reality, is to build on sand, to remain in the realm of pure ideas and to end up in a lifeless and unfruitful self-centredness and gnosticism.
Dealing with reality is more important that holding onto ideals that never come to fruition. Where have we seen this in practice? Certainly this principle was visible in the work and life of Nelson Mandela. Had he simply held that apartheid was evil and should be ended, without acknowledging the serious work that would be part of tearing down that practice, it might well continue today.
If Mandela had said, “We need to come together,” but never donned the soccer jersey and strode onto the field during the World Cup in 1995, his ideals would have been nothing more than symbolic. His willingness to put into practice, to live out what he hoped would become true exactly undergirds what Pope Francis is explaining now: a failure to heed realities makes a mockery of truth.
Certainly Advent is a season of acknowledging reality. We wonder if Jesus is really returning. We are no longer certain that peace can happen in our lifetimes. We despair that anything will be better for our children. We are resigned that our efforts to improve the plight of the poor actually makes any difference.
The difference between charity and caritas is the difference between the idea and the reality. The idea behind charity, as we have come to say the word today, is improving the situation of our neighbors. The reality of charity is that the improvement is usually short-term and rarely (but sometimes!) systemic.
The idea behind caritas is a lifting of all boats, a growth in understanding of our neighbors, a genuine sharing of what is deep, essential, and costly. The reality of caritas is that, when lived out, everyone can participate. Every person can give of what is costly to him or herself for the sake of neighbors, for the sake of the world, for the sake of Christ. Caritas is what brings ideas into being new realities. Caritas is what works to end oppression, division, and strife. Caritas is how God brings the kingdom through our hands. Caritas goes beyond the sparkle box to the manger to where God’s ideals of mercy and grace became the reality of Emmanuel. To again quote Pope Francis, and to channel Nelson Mandela: Caritas… “Not to put the word into practice, not to make it reality, is to build on sand, to remain in the realm of pure ideas and to end up in a lifeless and unfruitful self-centredness and [ignorance of material truths]”.