Listen to this story:
Ash Wednesday always seems to show up unexpectedly. It’s on the calendar. We know when it is, but it still seems to come with an element of surprise. Perhaps it’s because of the various commitments that come with it. Ash Wednesday begins Lent, and Lent is not a casual season of the liturgical year.
As Pope Francis reminded us in his annual Lenten Message this year: “Lenten penance is a commitment, sustained by grace, to overcoming our lack of faith and our resistance to following Jesus on the way of the cross.”
As a reminder to us of our Lenten commitments, the Ash Wednesday Mass gives us the Gospel reading of the Lord Jesus’ teachings on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The selection is taken from the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, which is hailed as the greatest summary of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ and follow his most excellent way of love.
The teachings of the Lord, which give heart to the spiritual life, is not defined by wishful thinking or warm sentiments. It is about doing challenging acts of asceticism. The way of the Lord Jesus is not a moral system or political agenda. It is about a relationship that places love and service first and foremost. In his teachings, such as the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord Jesus tempers our emotions and elevates our moral lives. He gives us his grace and the perfect example of how to live as the children of God.
In the Sermon on the Mount, we have the compelling outline of how to live a life of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Through the generations of believers, these three practices have come to be recognized as standard of spiritual maturity.
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. 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 is exposing pride, vanity and a fallen desire for human respect. 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 personal privacy. Such 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 gloom. He says not to neglect our appearance so that others might know that we are fasting.
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. The point is emphasized: we should keep our charitable outreach between God and our own hearts. Other people do not need to know. The Lord even says that our left hand should not know what our right hand is doing. And so, our almsgiving is to be done without fanfare or a desire for public recognition.
Pope Francis summarizes the spirit of these teachings in this year’s Lenten Message, when he proposes that believers not “take refuge in a religiosity made up of extraordinary events and dramatic experiences, out of fear of facing reality and its daily struggles, its hardships and contradictions.” The call of the Lord Jesus is a call to humility and simplicity. The pope reminds us: “The light that Jesus shows the disciples is an anticipation of Easter glory, and that must be the goal of our own journey, as we follow ‘him alone.’”
As we solemnly begin Lent, and are marked with ashes, we are all called to the ascetical practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Through such actions, we are invited to be true to ourselves and to seek God with sincere hearts.