When post-moderns think of caritas or charity, their minds jump to acts of benevolence or philanthropy. Charity in our world tends to be associated with material giving that is above and beyond what the government does. But the word charity comes to us from the Latin caritas, which means affection, love, and esteem. As the Christians appropriated it, it came to mean dear, costly, expensive, or precious.
To the men and women of Jesus’ time, the word would have referred to something that was hard to come by, and yet when attained, to be treasured and valued above many other things. But Caritas as a virtue soon gained supreme importance to early Christians because of its perfect Incarnation in the life and mission of Jesus Christ. Particularly, Caritas came to mean that love and mercy of God that was embodied perfectly in Jesus Christ’s one oblation of Himself once offered for the sins of the whole world. Caritas then is revealed as the costly love, the precious mercy, and the dear sacrifice that God would make for all men in His own dear Son in order to reveal His desire for their salvation.
For St. Paul, caritas or charity is a virtue that Jesus offers to the members of His newly forming Body as what us most needful for its effectual sanctification and salvation. Without charity, our conversation or business -mental, verbal, and tangible, fails to reveal and manifest the source and font of our being, knowing, and willing. Without caritas our religion is meaningless, since its absence makes a mockery of faith and hope. We cannot have faith in and hope for ultimate union and communion with God if we do not love Him with the love through which He love us, all other men, and the whole of creation. If we love Him without loving all neighbours, then we love Him for ourselves selfishly. We are in for the taking but not for the giving! Without charity, all gifts of knowledge, prophecy, and understanding will be spiritually useless. Without charity, good deeds, alms’ giving, even the oblation of life become dramatic expressions of self-promotion emerging from sadly underdeveloped and retarded egos.
The caritas or charity of the Father, expressed through the Son, and ours through the Spirit suffers much and is kind to all. It is not green with envy and jealousy. It is not driven by a need to puff up and inflate the self over and against others. It does not try to convince its neighbours that its enlightenment makes it indispensable to their religion. It does not gossip or think evil of others. It does not rejoice in others’ sufferings or failings. It bears other men’s burdens by loving them in Christ and hoping and praying for their sanctification and salvation.
Charity is essential for salvation. It is God’s to give. If we will not receive it, in the end times we shall not be embraced in His everlasting arms. Faith and hope are temporary virtues that stretch forth to find the love of perfect friendship with God. Charity is the virtue that moves all of reality centrifugally from God’s heart. It is a necessary means to our end.
If we have trouble putting it on, we had better start asking why. Perhaps we have been hurt in some way so that we have never really been loved or have been loved in those strange fashions that tend to confuse the mind and harden the heart. Whatever the reason might be, we must go to the Lord Jesus with this problem. We must ask Him to help us to love our neighbours as ourselves. We must pray Him to help us to love ourselves as He loves us.We must ask Him then to help our love to broaden into forgiveness so that we can begin to believe that the God who is converting us not only can but desires to convert all others also! So we must hope for all men’s salvation. And then we must pray for ways to reveal and disclose Christ’s love to others so that we might elicit from them the same love, which, God knows, we need as helps and aids in our journey to the Kingdom!