PRAYER, FASTING AND ALMSGIVING
(Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18)
Today is ASH WEDNESDAY, the beginning of Lent. The Gospel reading [part of the Sermon on the Mount] sets before us Jesus’ reflections on the three great cardinal works of the spiritual life: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We are invited to become involved in all three, so it is only right that we should reflect on Jesus’ advice which is the word of God for us.
Before speaking on any of the three, Jesus first gives an opening warning about practicing piety in order to be seen by people, about being publicly pious while keeping a wondering eye alert on audience reaction. Jesus’ position is clear and unambiguous: He’s against it. He’s not against people sharing their light with others, for the point of that is to give glory to God. He’s against people using religion to direct attention to themselves.
The Jews were required to pray at set times of the day: at 9 in the morning, at noontime, and at 3 in the afternoon. Wherever they were, they were supposed to stop, stretch out their arms with hands facing heavenwards, and bow their heads. But some people would make sure that it so happened that they were on a top step or at a busy street corner on the stroke of noon, so that they could do a muscular demonstration of fidelity in public, ensuring that their prayers were loud and long. Jesus doesn’t think much of posturing prayers which stop the traffic and which are calculated for home consumption, when people might confuse length with fidelity, or confuse fluency with sincerity.
The point about prayer is that it is addressed to the Father, not to those who have their tape recorders switched on. And Jesus gives the test of true prayer: that it is an activity that goes on in the secret places of our lives, when the audience has all gone home, when the tape-recorders are off, when our doors are closed, and when our hearts are open to the Father who loves us. As one of the great rabbis put it: “God says to Israel, pray in the synagogue of your city; if you cannot, pray in your bed; if you cannot, commune with your heart and be still.”
Like prayer, fasting was an important part of the spiritual tradition and was a sign of repentance. Fasting was always linked to repentance: if it is not, it can be reduced simply to the theology of weightwatchers. Jesus criticizes those who make sure that their faces look sufficiently collapsed to leave nobody in any doubt that their owners are on the job. In Palestine the two days of fasting were Monday and Thursday, which also happened to the market days. People could use the market-place to advertise their religious fervor. Jesus says no to this. Undertaker faces are no guarantee of authentic Christianity. Your face should look as if you have rented the sun. Again, what is important is that God knows what you do.
What are we to fast from? St. John Chrysostom wrote: “I tell you it is possible to fast while not fasting. Is this a riddle? By enjoying food while having no taste for sin. That is a better kind of fasting.” We are first obliged to fast from sin. There is no point in missing dinner and spending the evening demolishing our neighbor. We must starve our sins before we starve our stomachs, and that will keep fasting linked to repentance.
When it comes to giving alms to the poor, Jesus thinks little of those who make sure that the trumpet sounds first, that people are paying attention before the gift is given. Jesus gives the maxim: “your left hand must not know what your right hand is doing.” In the temple there was a room called the Chamber of the Silent, where people could atone for their sins by making offerings anonymously from which the poor could be helped secretly. This is the kind of giving approved by Jesus: it is quiet and it is for the benefit of the poor.
What can we give? We should share the most precious gifts we have received: love, compassion, understanding and forgiveness. That is what forgiveness is for – it is for giving. We are asked to give ourselves, and in that we have the marvelous example of Jesus. He gave generously of Himself: He was at great pains to share with others His time, His energy, His many gifts. In the end He gave Himself away and shares with us His body and blood.
So the Church asks us at the beginning of Lent to renew our own lives in the great spiritual works of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and to heed Jesus’ advice in Gospel. Yesterday – on the Ash Wednesday – we tried to begin and we received the ashes as a sign that we are willing to undertake the Gospel way of life. Hopefully we still remember, that when we received the ashes yesterday, we heard again the first words of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15).
Note: Taken (with some small changes) from Fr. Dennis McBride, CSsR, SEASONS OF THE WORD, Redemptorist Publications, September 1993 [Third printing], pages 68-69.
Jakarta, 2 March 2022 [ASH WEDNESDAY]
A Christian Pilgrim