Week 4 - Acts of Mercy
Acts of mercy
By Archbishop Vicken Aykazian
We hear a great deal about prayer and fasting during Lent, but the season has a third dimension, one that directs our spiritual efforts outside of ourselves, into the world.
Our Lenten model comes from Jesus himself. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ gave us specific, practical advice about praying and fasting. He completed the picture of spiritual living with an activity as holy as prayer, as venerable as fasting: giving alms to the poor (Matthew 6:1-4, KJV).
“Almsgiving” — a term so old-fashioned that it almost pushes you away — is the English word for this neglected dimension of Lent.
In Armenian Christian spirituality, however, the term we use is much more evocative: voghormoutiun (voh-ghor-moo-TYOON). It’s not an easy word to pronounce; but to ears attuned to the prayers of the Armenian Church, it recalls our mystical hymn, “Der Voghormia” — literally “Lord Have Mercy.” Voghormoutiun means “mercifulness” or “acts of mercy.” Through our prayers, we ask God to have mercy on us; through our actions, voghormoutiun is the mercy we show to others.
Fasting is about you and your body. Prayer is about you and your relationship with God. But voghormoutiun can only be done in the presence of other people. It’s the social dimension of Lent.
Certainly, the practice involves giving money or food to the poor. That’s the dictionary definition of almsgiving. But performing acts of mercy involves more than writing a check or dropping coins into a needy person’s hand. The Armenian term conveys a deeper meaning of not only giving of your things, but the giving of your self. It’s about being generous with your time and your attention to the needs of others.
That is our challenge during Lent, and it is as profound as the disciplines of fasting and prayer. It’s a challenge familiar to Habitat for Humanity: to recognize the divine spark in each human soul — the way Jesus showed us.
He gave us a valuable piece of advice in the Sermon on the Mount. “When you do merciful deeds,” he said, “don’t let your left hand know what your right hand does, so that your merciful deeds may be in secret” (Matthew 6:3-4, WEB). It’s a clue to the attitude that should guide us. The test of voghormoutiun is not whether the stranger approaches us to say, “Thank you.” It’s whether we can approach the stranger, to say, “You’re welcome.”
It is sometimes easy to recognize physical needs like food, clothing or shelter, but how can we be more attuned to other kinds of neediness, such as people living in spiritual pain and poverty? How might we better recognize those who are disaffected, depressed and lost? How should we respond?
What do you picture when you hear the term “almsgiving”? How is that different from acts of mercy? How might that difference affect the way you observe Lent?
We think a lot about the need to say “thank you,” but not so much about the need to say “you’re welcome.” Take a moment to reflect on the deeper meaning of those words as a reply to gratitude. How might they relate to Jesus’ teaching on generosity?
Lord, show us ways we can humbly offer acts of mercy during this Lenten season and beyond. Help us to recognize how others are experiencing physical, emotional and spiritual pain. Place in our hearts the desire to respond generously in ways that require giving of ourselves. Amen.
Archbishop Vicken Aykazian is Diocesan Legate and Ecumenical Director of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern) and is a former member of the board of directors of Habitat for Humanity International.
Rather than emphasizing what you will “give up” for Lent, focus on positive actions you can take to demonstrate the extraordinary love of Jesus.