Ash Wednesday 2019 (readings)
Today marks the beginning of Lent. A time of preparation for the Resurrection of Our Lord on Easter Sunday. Traditionally, this time of the year is one of penance, of sacrifice. A time to give something up or do something extra. Like giving up sugar or social media, or volunteering at homeless shelters or food pantries. These are all good and commendable practices.
Our Lord makes clear in the Gospel today how he expects us to do these Lenten practices. He tells us to, “take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them.” Otherwise, “[we] will have no reward from [our] Father in heaven.” With complete authority Christ teaches that true piety must be practiced with an upright intention, in the presence of God and without any ostentation, without any outward showiness.
For those of us who haven’t decided on what to do for Lent, and indeed even for those who have, Christ explains the three traditional forms of penance that we can add this lent; they are Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving. All of which are meant to deepen our relationship with God.
Prayer is very obviously a means to grow closer with the Lord. When we dedicate a period of time each day this Lent for intentional prayer and conversation with Christ, we inevitably improve our relationship with Him. For some of us, Christ is asking us to set aside time each day, or each week, to sit in front of the blessed sacrament in adoration for as little as 5 minutes; for others, Christ is asking us to commit ourselves to attending Sunday Mass every week; and still others, Christ is asking that we begin attending a weekday Mass here at the parish. Regardless of what Christ is asking of us, this added time in prayer will reap massive benefits in our spiritual life, and indeed in our relations with family, friends, and coworkers.
Fasting isn’t always as clear as to how this allows us to grow closer to Christ, but it does. Because it’s fasting that allows us to mortify our desires and our bodies, to say no to things that bring us away from Christ. For some of us, this is food, for others this might be social media or video games, and still others this might be a simple desire to be liked. When we begin to say no to these seemingly good things in life, it frees us to more easily say yes to Christ and whatever He asks of us.
Almsgiving, or in other words donating, isn’t strictly a matter of money. Sure, that can be part of it, and it’s a good thing to do. In addition, we can also volunteer if we have the time, but not the money. We can take a friend out to dinner and cover their meal; we can visit our elderly parents or grandparents and play a board game with them; we can spend quality time with our children, dedicating time with them just as we dedicate hours of the day to work and household chores.
That said, if the end goal of our Lenten practices isn’t Easter, if the goal of our Lenten practices isn’t a closer unity with Our Lord, then they are useless. If our Lenten penances cause problems for our family, our friends, our coworkers, then we assuredly have the wrong intention. Praying, Fasting, and Almsgiving, when done with the right intention–in secret where only Our Father in Heaven can see them–will bring more peace, humility, and patience to our lives.
My brothers and sisters, as Christ tells us: When you pray, pray in secret. When you fast, fast in secret. When you give alms, give alms in secret. The sign of the Cross we are about to receive as an external sign of penance must not be a sign of pride, but rather a sign of humility; recognizing that we are sinners that rely on the grace and mercy of God the Father.