MT. 6:1-6. Jesus said to his disciples: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”
Opening Prayer: Lord Jesus, your church gives me this annual reminder that ‘right now’ is the best time to turn back to God, the right time to, not only seek, but also to give forgiveness, the most fitting moment to renew our devotion to the lives of faith, service, sacrifice and love. Fill my soul with your courage, so that I can make these resolutions truly an act of love to you.
Beginning in the Old Testament, ashes have been a sign of humility and repentance. In the book of Jonah, the whole city of Nineveh put on sackcloth and sat in ashes, hoping this would move God to mercy. Repentance begins with remembering who we are without God. The words of the priest when he is administering the ashes help us to recall our simple origins. God takes that dust and breathes life into it, with the unbelievable gift of the infused immortal soul. As we begin Lent, let us cultivate a deep humility, realizing that God’s gifts are the source of all things good, that we have, and who we are.
The context of today’s Gospel has a valuable warning. It is heard in the midst of a public assembly that begins our Lenten journey as a people united by the very visible display of ashes worn on our forehead as an act of penance. An occupational hazard for Christians is hypocrisy. We fall into hypocrisy when appearances are cultivated but the heart remains unconverted. We reduce the act of receiving ashes to an empty rite if we don’t embrace their meaning with our whole heart. May our humble and considerate love of others speak louder than even the ashes on our foreheads.
In the end, our deeds must be for God and not for others. During this Lent, we have an amazing opportunity to make resolutions and offer sacrifices of various kinds, but above all, let us also go to our inner room to pray. We need to connect to the Father who sees us always and wants us to put all our love and effort into our relationship with him. Jesus speaks, too, about a reward: “Your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.” There is no greater reward than to simply be closer to Him!
Jesus instructs his disciples on the importance of performing acts of charity and justice for the sake of God’s future blessings and not for some temporal reward in the here and now. The disciplines of almsgiving, fasting, and prayer must always be focused on God and a future joy. We are tempted to start out on the first day of Lent with an agenda for personal improvements and challenges of changing the world. Remember that it is not about trying to appear worthy before God, but more about living selflessly for others, something that, lately in our world, has been lost if not forgotten. When all of our acts of almsgiving, and prayer are conducted in such a way as to lose oneself for others, then they are pointed in God’s direction.
Jesus, I thank you for these ashes, a reminder today of my humbleness. May they stir in my soul feelings of remorse for my sins and faults, but with a total confidence that you are giving me the grace of your forgiveness. Lord, cleanse my heart and make it more like yours!
Closing Prayer. Father in heaven; protect us in our struggle against evil. As we begin the discipline of Lent, make this season holy by our self-denial. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.