Ash Wednesday

Scripture Readings for March 1, 2017:

Joel 2:12-18, Psalm 51: 3-6, 12-14, 17, 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2,

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

Is anyone confused by today’s gospel? Jesus says in three different ways, don’t parade your religious practices around for others to see: don’t trumpet your alms giving, don’t make a show of your praying, and when you fast don’t make it appear like you are fasting. Yet here we are at Ash Wednesday and many of us will receive a great big cross of ashes on our foreheads. That isn’t exactly praying behind closed doors where no one will see. You can be sure everyone is going to see ashes all over your forehead.

So why does this reading question public displays of almsgiving, prayer and fasting when that is exactly what Lent asks us to do? Perhaps this story of Jesus teaching about traditional acts of piety isn’t about being modest or unassuming in our religious practices?

The first thing I noticed when I spent time praying with this reading was the repetition of the word, hypocrites. We have three different religious practices, almsgiving, prayer and fasting. But we have one type of behavior that keeps getting criticized, being a hypocrite. Whatever Jesus may be saying about almsgiving, prayer and fasting we know he finds fault with hypocritical behavior.

Every time the almsgiving, prayer or fasting is secret or hidden, it is rewarded by God.  When it is done for others to see, it is considered hypocritical behavior. I think, Jesus is saying the key to the value of our actions is the attitude we have in doing it. Unlike the hypocrite, our thoughts, our feelings, the hidden inner, secret part of us should match what we do in the open.

Jesus isn’t promoting hiding our almsgiving but rather a giving to others that expresses our real concerns. Jesus isn’t against public prayer he wants our prayer to be about who we are. Jesus isn’t worried people will know we are fasting, he wants us to fast as a way to focus on what we may too often ignore, those inner feelings or attitudes we hide even from ourselves. Jesus wants us to ask ourselves, are we hypocrites? Do we live based on what we believe? Or do we cover our true feelings with phony behavior? Perhaps, it is what we hide deep inside that should concern us most?

So how does Lent and receiving ashes today help? Why the emphasis on almsgiving, prayer and fasting during Lent? The practices of Lent are meant to break into our patterns of behavior. Just as Joel called for trumpets to blow, just as Paul said this was the day of salvation, we need something to get our attention. Coming to get ashes, not eating meat today and on Fridays in Lent, giving money or our time to others, adding a time to pray or changing how we pray during Lent gets our attention so we can practice doing what God’s asks of us. We are being asked to make it intentional so it can become part of who we are.

To use a baseball analogy, think of Lent as our annual spring training. Lent is about getting ready for the regular season. In every sport we understand that to play the game involves learning the skills, doing the drill to get it right. We need to practice what we are going to do during the game so it is part of us. Lent is practice for the game of everyday Catholic life.

We all know everyday life is responsible and rigorous. It is taking care of our children, making decisions at work, building loving relationships, figuring out what is the most important use of our time. The question Jesus poses is: will what we do each day match our Catholic faith? Will what we do, match our innermost feelings and attitudes? What we do with Lent could make a difference. Make the decision to do something different in Lent, put in the practice it takes to make a difference every day.

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