Ash Wednesday launches the Season of Lent, a season of reflection and preparation for Easter. While Catholics are known to joke about excess guilt and penance all year long, these next forty days offer us time for repentance, fasting, reflection, and ultimately celebration.
Today’s gospel reading informs us how penance is to be carried out. Matthew tells us, “When you fast, do not look gloomy” and instead “anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting.” It tells us also how we should pray: “when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.”
Beyond prayer and penance, it is also a mandate on how to live out worship in general. “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them.” And in what can only be understood as hyperbole, Jesus says, “do not let your left hand know what your right is doing.”
If you go to church this Sunday, chances are you are not obeying this dictum to the letter. Celebrating the Mass might be difficult to do in your “inner room” and in secret. And yet, we recognize the truth of the Scriptures. The worship we owe our God is not one of public theatrics but of personal oblation. It is not the public act that is demanded, but sincere personal commitment. It is further echoed in the first reading of Joel: “Rend your hearts, not your garments.”
How often do we see the expressions of public, insincere virtue? It can be particularly jarring to see people loudly invoke the mantle of Christianity to spearhead causes directly opposed to the life and teachings of Christ. For every public invocation of faith and good works, it is worth considering: will the outward act deepen my relationship with Christ? If the act is not done for its own sake, its moral value might be vacuous.
Later in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus, brought before the Sanhedrin, is condemned to death by a dramatic public gesture: “Then the high priest tore his robes and said, ‘He has blasphemed! What further need have we of witnesses?’” (Matt 26:65) Anyone reading the larger context of the story knows to be skeptical of the high priest’s sincerity. His outrage symbolized by tearing his (probably very expensive) vestments is in part a misdirection from the fact that there are no other witnesses. What’s more, all other witness testimony up until then has not been very convincing. The empty rhetoric and gesture condemn Jesus to death.
And so, the challenge for us all every day and particularly in the Season of Lent, is to let our outward gestures be no more than the sincere manifestation of inward conviction. “Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God.”
Questions for reflection
What are ways in which you pray to God?
How do my prayer practices deepen my connection to God? To your community?
Dedicated to Service
Bring only your determination to serve
and your willingness to be free.
Only surrender to the need of the Time—
To love justice and walk humbly with God.
Set out in the dark.
I will send fire to warm and encourage you.
I will be with you in the fire
And I will be with you in the cloud.
You will learn to eat new food
And find refuge in new places.
I will give you dreams in the desert
To guide you safely home to that place you have not yet seen.
The stories you tell one another by the fires in the dark
Will make you strong and wise.
You will get to where you are going
By remembering who you are.
Touch each other and keep telling stories.
- Sharon Raynor, MKLM
Maryknoll Book of Prayer
Take a break from social media. Turn off your cell phone, tablet or computer. Use that time to care for your relationship with God, the earth, yourself, and others.
Social media can create false expectations, exaggerate misunderstandings, or fuel negative emotion. It is no substitute from in-person social interaction. Instead, seek out conversation with neighbors, especially those who are lonely.
Gather friends and watch The Letter, a poignant YouTube Original documentary about Laudato Si’, which tells the story of a journey to Rome of frontline leaders to discuss the encyclical with Pope Francis. See the movie for free here: https://bit.ly/MOGCLetter
This reflection was published in the 2023 Lenten Reflection Guide: Inspired by Laudato Si' from the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns