Ash Wednesday [Mt 6:1-6.16-18]
14 February 2018
Almsgiving, Prayer and Fasting with a Difference
Readings: (1) Joel 2:12-18 (2) 2 Cor 5:20-6:2
1. Theme in brief
Right motive and attitudes for Lenten observances
2. Focus Statement
Our Lenten observances should be done for right motives that give glory to God, and not for self-glory or for attracting people’s attention and getting a merit certificate from God.
3. Explanation of the text
In today’s gospel Jesus speaks about three religious practices found in all religions, namely, almsgiving,prayer and fasting. He approves these practices, but with a difference. He criticizes the manner in which they are practiced by pious Jews (mainly the Pharisees) of his time and points out their wrong motives. He attaches three prescriptions to be followed by his disciples while practicing these deeds of piety: (1) the type of behaviour they should avoid; (2) the proper motive or attitude they should observe; and (3) the type of reward they should look for.
In today’s gospel, he emphasizes three times the need to avoid hypocrisy and showiness while practicing each of these pious deeds (6:2,5,16). [A hypocrite is an actor in life’s drama, who pretends to be what he/she is not in real life.] Instead of practicing these deeds like actors in a pious drama, these deeds should be done to give glory to God and not to be seen and praised by others (6:1-2); that is, not for self-glory or to earn public reputation. They are only means to achieve an end – an expression of our innerattitudes and motives. They are not to be practiced to attract people’s attention (6:1,3,6,17) or to get a merit certificate from God. Jesus’ instruction to shut the door of one’s room and pray privately or secretly (6:6) does not mean we should not pray in common or publicly. What it means is that prayer should not be done with other ulterior motives than for glorifying God and entering into a deeper communion with him. Here Jesus points out how self-centeredness can be the motive for even the best of religious practices. If they are done for personal glory rather than for God’s, they lose their real meaning or purpose.
While speaking about the reward for such practices, Jesus contrasts between the shortsighted earthly reward and the everlasting heavenly reward. The former is earned through recognition, admiration and reputation among the public and the latter is an eternal reward of heavenly bliss given by the Father. In human society, the one who gives alms earns the reputation of being generous, the one who prays regularly in public places of being a devout person and the one who fasts rigorously of being an ascetic. In contrast, the Father who sees everything in secret, looks into people’s hearts, and rewards them by judging the inner motives behind these deeds (6:4,618). Since those who make a public display of these deeds already receive their reward here on earth in terms of a high reputation, honour and name, there is no further scope for any other reward in the age to come.
4. Application to life
Today we enter into a 40-day period of inner purification called the holy Season of Lent. For many Catholics, Lent means just giving up meat on Fridays and attending the Way of the Cross on that day. They also very well understand that Lent is a period of penance for their sins by focusing on Christ’s passion. Though this is true and noble, the primary purposes of Lent are less emphasized and less understood by many Catholics: (1) It is a time of preparation for Easter or the Lord’s Passover. Just as the Lord Jesus passed (crossed) over from death to eternal life at his resurrection, this is a period set apart for us to pass over from all sinful, selfish, ungodly and worldly ways to new (holy) life on Easter day by following the path of charity, ardent prayer and penance, as outlined by Jesus in today’s gospel. (2) It is a time for renewal of our baptismal grace and commitment. At baptism (which was our first Easter) we crossed over from sin to a new or holy life, or in St. Paul’s metaphor ‘died’ with Christ and ‘rose’ with him. But we have soiled our baptismal purity by our sins and by not "believing in the gospel," as per the words used by the priest while imposing ash on the head (Mk 1:15). Not "believing in the gospel" means not living or following the way of life laid down for us in the gospel of Christ. So Lent is a period set apart for us to turn away from sins and come back to the Lord and to his gospel. In St. Paul’s metaphor it is a time to ‘die’ to our sinful/ selfish ways and ‘rise’ to a new/ holy life as we complete fourty days of penance on Easter day.
How? In today’s gospel text Jesus lays down three Lenten observances as aids to renew our baptismal commitment, namely, almsgiving, prayer and fasting. He gives a new meaning to these traditional practices, which is different from what many pious people of his time as well as in our own times understand. These practices are to be external expressions of genuine repentance and conversion. They are means to reach the goal of renewing our baptismal call. This renewal needs to be done by coming close to God and a determination to give up evil practices and sins. We have to examine our inner motives and dispositions and ask ourselves if these observances will lead us to a renewal of our baptismal call – the aim of Lent – and make us committed disciples.
The first Lenten observance of almsgiving must be broadly understood to include all charitable deedsand sharing of our goods with the needy as well as solidarity with those whom we have excluded from our schemes. It is an expression of our gratitude to what God has given us out of his bounty and our responsibility to share something of that with the have-nots. The second one, namely prayer should proceed from our genuine love of God, and lead to a deeper communion with him flowing into more committed service to our neighbours. The third one, namely fasting includes all acts of penance andabstinence. Lenten abstinence from meat, alcohol, smoking, etc., is to be practiced for spiritual benefits and not purely for health reasons like lowering one’s cholesterol or preventing cancer. Nor penance should be done for its own sake, or just for experiencing a good deal of pain by giving up something dear to us without using it as a means to change of hearts. Fasting and acts of penance need to be signs of our genuine repentance - a turning away from evil and turning back to God. When done with pure motive, they can lead us to an inner disposition for repentance and sorrows for our sins. They are aids for "dying to sin and rising with new life" when we shall celebrate EASTER.
Let us enumerate some of the spiritual motives for fasting and abstinence:
(1) It is a means to humble ourselves before God and is an expression of mourning for our sins and wrongdoing. It is meant to make us realize the harm inflicted on ourselves and others by our own sins and to seek the path of conversion. (2) It is an aid to prayer. It is up to us to use it for reflecting on our hunger for God as we feel physical hunger. (3) It reminds us to feel the pain and agony of so many people in the world who go hungry due to their poverty, and the suffering of those who are seriously ill or are victims of natural calamities, or experience injustice, etc. (4) It reminds us of the need to do our bit for the alleviation of suffering and misery in the world, by spending a bit of our money/ time/ energy/ expertise for this cause. (5) It is a form of self-discipline and self-control we want to practice by giving up a pleasurable thing. When we freely choose to impose discipline on ourselves for a greater cause or a higher good without any external force, we shall look as if we are going for a feast when we actually are fasting. This could be one of the applications of Jesus’ saying: "When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face" (6:17). (6) It teaches us to manage without things we are so used to, such as food, drink and modern comforts. Before motor vehicles, electricity and mobile phones came into existence people knew how to manage their affairs. Now, can we manage without electricity or mobile phone for an hour without making a fuss or becoming restless? One of the penances in Lent could be to switch off or not to take the mobile phone to the church/ chapel, or during the common meal ( at least ar supper).
Apart from abstinence from meat/ smoking/ drinking we can do more creative types of fasting andpenance during this Lent: (1) walking to the railway station or bus stand if it is within a km instead of going by our vehicle or hiring a vehicle for the noble cause of protecting our environment from further degradation; (2) saving energy and water by limiting their usage or resisting their unnecessary wastage; (3) resisting the desire to get glued to the mobile phone all the time and using it for fun-calls and needless talk like, "What did you cook for dinner"; (5) donating money for charitable/ worthy causes secretly without any desire for display of one’s name on the notice board/ on marble stone or mention of it in church announcements. We need to reflect and see whether we would have donated any money for that good cause if our names were not mentioned or displayed anywhere. Since Jesus asks us to purify ourmotives and check whether they are genuine, why not give it a try and move from common practice of the world.
The best penance we can do in Lent is to practice in a visible manner the traditional works of mercy. They are divided into two categories: (1) The Corporal Works of Mercy – to feed the hungry; to give drink to the thirsty; to clothe the naked; to shelter the homeless; to visit the sick; to visit the prisoners; to bury the dead; and (2) The Spiritual Works of Mercy – to instruct the ignorant; to counsel the doubtful; to admonish sinners; to bear wrongs patiently; to forgive offences willingly; to comfort the afflicted; to pray for the living and the dead. We could try to choose any one of the corporal works of mercy and put them into practice in the following manner: by not wasting food; sending a portion of one’s food (not left over food) to an orphanage; making drinking water available to passers-by or distributing it during a public function; sharing our space with others ( e.g. with workers for taking a break in between their work or for studies/ coaching of children); donating blood to the sick; visiting a home for the aged with small gifts; visiting the sick in homes or in hospitals; giving material help to the family of prisoners (especially when breadwinners are imprisoned); visiting the bereaved families and visiting the local cemetery to pray for the repose of those who are not related to us.
In a similar way, we could choose any one of the spiritual works of mercy and put them into practice in the following manner: by sharing our faith-convictions with those who have doubts of faith; accompanying a relative or neighbour who is undergoing mental or physical pain to a retreat/ healing/ prayer/ counseling centre; explaining to others the truth of our faith as much as we know; inviting neighbours to attend a group Mass; volunteering to teach catechism in the parish; admonishing somebody who has gone astray from Christian path and showing the way to turn back to God; forgiving or asking pardon from somebody with whom we have stopped talking for a long time or doing a charitable deed for that person or his family; praying to be patient with those who are unbearable; praying for the persons against whom we have grudges; etc.
5. Response to God's Word
Do we do Lenten observances with above-mentioned motives? Or do we do them only to follow a custom or gain merit here and hereafter? Do we use them as means to improve our Christian commitment? Are we self-centred even in our religious practices? Are we going to follow the path of giving and sharing, praying more, sacrificing and renouncing with the motive of self-renewal and better Christian commitment throughout this Lenten Season? Which of the above-mentioned creative ways of fasting we would like to observe?
6. A prayer
Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness; in your compassion blot out my offence. O wash me more and more from my guilt and cleanse me from my sin. A pure heart create for me, O God; put a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence; nor deprive me of your Holy Spirit. Do not despise my broken and contrite heart and restore to me the joy of your salvation. Amen.