During Lent, we tend to hear an increased emphasis on three pillars of Christian practice: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. This particular reflection will be about the third pillar, almsgiving, along with some pertinent advice from Mary Poppins, who teaches the Banks family about the value of charity.
We often think about almsgiving in the sense of giving money to the poor. Almsgiving most definitely includes that, but here’s my additional “two cents”: we should also think of almsgiving as time spent with other people, especially those people who are disadvantaged and not just in the sense of being monetarily impoverished. Poverty comes in many forms, and it is not always alleviated by giving money. There are people around us every day, including ourselves, who experience different forms of poverty – material poverty, emotional poverty, and spiritual poverty. There are people who are hungry and thirsty and in need of shelter – both in the physical sense and otherwise. Some are lonely and hunger for friendship. Some experience stress and thirst for peace of mind. Some carry the heavy burden of abuse and trauma and yearn for freedom from oppressive memories. Some are marginalized because of disability, mental illness, race, and socioeconomic status – to name just a few – and desire acceptance and inclusion. Some are waiting anxiously for loved ones to come home, and some have been wandering, feeling lost for a while, and want to come home. Some search for truth all their lives and despair of ever finding meaning in life. We all have some emptiness inside of ourselves, and we seek authentic and lasting fulfillment.
One particular scene in the film Mary Poppins reveals the significance of almsgiving in the broader sense of being present to others in their need – the scene when Mary Poppins sings to the children Jane and Michael Banks the song, “Feed the Birds.”
This song may just be about a “little old bird woman” who comes early each day to the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London to feed the pigeons there and sell her bags of crumbs for tuppence. This song, however, has a deeper meaning if you look closely at the lyrics and the scene itself.
This “little old bird woman” may seem like a nobody in the eyes of many – a poor, elderly, homeless woman with very little to contribute to society. But she reveals her gift: she feeds the birds, and she calls others to do the same. She commits herself to a cause that many would not – she feeds and draws attention to those who have not, those who are everywhere but overlooked in the busyness of daily life. She calls to people passing by, “Come, buy my bags full of crumbs. Come, feed the little birds, show them you care. And you’ll be glad if you do – their young ones are hungry; their nests are so bare.” She calls to people “in her own special way,” urging them to look around and encounter others in their need. Like the poor widow who gives the two coins she has to the temple treasury (Mark 12:41-44), the little old bird woman takes what she has – bags of bread crumbs – and gives out of even her poverty to pigeons.
This woman also sits on the steps of the cathedral, a grand building of worship. She is, in some sense, a prophet. She stands before the Church and points to what needs to be done, what the people of God need to do to better their relationship with God. Her words are “simple and few,” and we need to listen: “Feed the birds, tuppence a bag.” The Church, the people of God who make up this cathedral, needs to feed the birds – the people around us every day. These birds, these people, when fed, take to the skies. The little old bird woman raises up these birds in their time of need, and we, too, need to raise up others in their time of need. It’s easy to simply pass by, but we need to show that we care. As Pope Francis has said many a time, people need to feel that they are loved. Has not each of us felt in our emptiness the desire to feel loved, to have a friend jump in the hole with us and show us the way to the sky?
Yes, Mr. Banks, tuppence may do well to be invested in the bank where it can accumulate and provide for our own needs, instead of giving the money to people like the little old bird woman for bags of seemingly meaningless bread crumbs. We must also pay attention, however, to the needs of others. Tuppence is even more greatly invested in those people around us who need care, who need those morsels to nourish them. The material return on the investment in these cases is definitely not much, if not at all. In fact, it often costs us. Mary Poppins is trying to teach the Banks family that although investment in relationships with other human beings has a cost, the reward of love shown is indeed great. People are raised up; they take to the skies. While we don’t have a magic carpetbags from which we can draw out anything we want, we do have tuppence. We each have two cents that we can invest in our “own special way.” As the little old bird woman says, we will be glad if we do. There is a cost to almsgiving, but it is not without great joy in the discovery of human dignity, love, and the beauty of self-gift. When we give alms, we glorify the love of God who conquers human suffering, sin, and death.
There are so many people around us who are cold, hungry, and lonely. We need to feed each other, and we also need to let ourselves be fed. The questions that we must ask ourselves during this Lent and beyond are these: Where do I invest my tuppence? Do I show others that I care? Do I try to encounter the person? Listen – she’s calling to you. Feed the birds, tuppence a bag… How will you respond to God’s children in need? Yes, let us donate money, food, drink, clothes, and other necessities, but let us also be attentive to the people whom we encounter. They are persons, and they also have needs that are not fulfilled by the usual material necessities. Your words need not be eloquent or impressive – just simple and few. “How can I help?” “Would you like to eat lunch with me?” “I will pray for you.” “Thank you.” “You are always welcome.” “I love you.” “God bless you.” Sometimes, you don’t need to say anything at all – just sitting with someone in silence, holding a friend in your arms, bringing something you made to another person, whether it be homemade cookies, a flower bouquet, a poem, a song, a video, or a painting, or doing something for them that they need, such as household chores, starting a fundraiser, teaching them a particular subject or trade, or running a 5K for a cause. All it takes is “tuppence” from you, giving to others morsels of your time and attention in “your own special way.”