Get ready! This coming week is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the penitential season of Lent. By ancient custom, believers will have ashes placed on their foreheads as they begin this forty-day preparation for Easter.
As an aide to this preparation, the liturgy contains the proclamation of the Lord Jesus’ teachings on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Taken from the Sermon on the Mount, which is the greatest summary of the Lord’s way of love, these instructions give a clear and challenging summons to the spiritual life of believers and to all people of good will.
For some, the spiritual life is identical to wishful thinking or warm sentiments. For others, spirituality is a moral system or political agenda. Breaking through all these understandings and going right to the heart of every human being, however, the Lord Jesus tempers our emotions and elevates our moral behavior as he invites us to a life of sincerity and integrity. He gives us the outline of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to help us in this effort.
Through the course of time, these three practices have come to be recognized as a three-ring standard of spiritual maturity and growth. And so, in the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord addresses them and gives very practical counsel on how we can live them.
In terms of prayer, the Lord Jesus exhorts us not to pray as the hypocrites do, namely, do not stand and pray in public so that others can see you. He is exposing pride, vanity and a fallen desire for human respect. The Lord reminds us that when we pray, our focus should be on God and not on what our neighbors are thinking about us. He tells us that those who indulge in public displays of prayer merely for themselves have already received their reward.
Contrary to such pomp, the Lord Jesus welcomes us to go into an “inner room,” behind closed doors, and covered by a modest secrecy. This privacy helps us to retain a purity of intention and keep our focus on God. In this way, prayer can become a place of rest and vulnerability, as well as a time for examination and amendment. Prayer becomes life-giving and an opportunity for true adoration of God.
In terms of fasting, the Lord Jesus admonishes us to humility. He explains that when we fast, we should not look gloomy! He says not to neglect our appearance so that others might know that we are fasting. Again the Lord calls for discretion. Fasting is to be a private sacrifice made for personal intentions.
By keeping it relatively quiet, we spare ourselves from stress and social scrutiny. This provides us with a freedom of heart and by it our sacrificial fasting is enriched both in terms of our own spiritual development and in our worship of God.
The Lord, therefore, instructs us to shampoo our hair and wash our face so that no one will know that we are fasting. This grassroots advice once again guards our privacy and redirects our hearts to the purpose of the sacrifice.
In terms of almsgiving, the Lord gives his strongest directives. He commands that we should not perform good deeds so that other people can see them. We’re told not to blow trumpets before us when we give to others. While trumpets were literally blown before benefactors in Jesus’ historical context, the counsel still applies to us.
While figurative in our contemporary context, the point is still made: we should keep our charitable outreach between God and and our own hearts. Other people do not need to know. The Lord says bluntly, “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.”
And so, our almsgiving is to be done without fanfare or a desire for public recognition. They are to be real, interior acts of love to our neighbor because we love God and want to share his love with others.
In each of these three practices – prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – the Lord calls us to be true to ourselves, to our own hearts, and to our understanding of God.
As we solemnly begin Lent and are marked with ashes, therefore, we’re all invited to deepen in these ascetical practices. We’re called to break from self-promotion and pride and to purify these practices more deeply so that they become what they’re meant to be, namely, life-giving help to us in our spiritual growth and relationship with God.