Prayer, fasting, almsgiving: The tripod of spiritual gifts during Advent
by Father Thomas Ryan, CSP
December 7, 2009
Father Thomas Ryan, CSPFather Thomas Ryan, CSP

Bus terminals, train stations and airports tend to be drab and colorless places that people simply pass through – with the exception of the days preceding Christmas. At this time of year, waiting areas in the “arrivals” zone are marked by waving arms, smiling faces and warm hugs as travelers “land” into the arms of loved ones.

Want a rich Advent meditation? Just go to your local bus or train station and watch the scenes of reunion. You might find your own emotions rising up within you even though you don’t know any of the people you’re watching. And why is that? Because what we’re seeing touches our own deep longing and appreciation for relationships that bring us joy.

God created us to delight and thrive in intimacy and community, in loving and being loved. We were created to know these precious gifts, first of all, in our relationship with God.

And if Christmas is the celebration of God’s presence, of God’s entering into a new and astonishing level of intimacy with us by actually becoming one of us, then Advent is a season of sharpening up our appreciation for relationships of love and intimacy. How might we do that, beginning with our relationship with God? What gifts of the spirit and heart could we offer?

True gifts

In an amazing act of divine largesse, Jesus opened up to us his own intimate relationship with the One whom he called “Abba”, Father. What better way to freshen up our relationship with God this Advent, to not take it for granted and to send a message of how much we value it, than to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation?

Picture it: God is inviting us to “come home” and is waiting for us with a warm and joyful embrace to come through the door. Reconciliation, with God or with a colleague or friend, is a spiritual gift that flows both ways.

Another spiritual gift that we can offer to God in this season where we celebrate the Word of God becoming flesh, is to go to God the way God came to us – in and through a body. An embodied prayer is a particularly powerful prayer because it is registered through the whole of our being. Fasting is one such prayer.

True gifts

We tend to associate fasting only with the season of Lent, but the tripod of prayer, fasting and almsgiving represents the core in the Judeo-Christian tradition of our response to God’s invitation to a relationship of intimacy. Each leg of the tripod is important not just for one or the other seasons of the liturgical year, but for Christian living throughout the year, especially during a time of preparation for a major festival of faith like Christmas or Easter.

What this spiritual gift essentially does is send God the message that you, God, are Number One for me – more important than my routine, or even life and growth itself, symbolized by food, which I will set aside for a designated period of time as an expression of my love for you.

Prayer, another leg of that tripod, also represents a valuable spiritual gift we can offer in this season both to God and for others. As this is the season for the giving of gifts with a generous heart and spirit, if Sunday mass is what you normally do by way of communal prayer, how about “topping” that by making time to sit at the Lord’s table on another day of the week as well, saying by your presence: “Here I am! Our relationship is the priority.” And in return, we receive the inestimable gift of an intensification of God’s own life within us. Appreciable, too, is the spiritual gift of our prayers to and for loved ones.

True gifts

The third leg of that tripod, almsgiving, can take many expressions. If almsgiving is a contribution to another’s lack or need, then sometimes our simple presence is the most appreciated spiritual gift we can offer. A visit to an elderly person largely confined to the house by the cold of winter. An hour with a friend convalescing from sickness or surgery. An evening or Saturday afternoon of baby-sitting that frees the time- and cash-strapped parents.

Advent: the season for spiritual gifts both given and received. And at the heart of it all is relationship. How will you deepen yours with your Loved One and your loved ones?



Father Thomas Ryan, CSP, is the director of the Paulist Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations based in Washington, D.C.