Every year people struggle with this: It's Ash Wednesday, so we fast and put ashes on our foreheads. But the Gospel instructs us to keep our fasting a secret. Some people feel sheepish. Some feel hypocritical. What's going on — how are we supposed to approach the first day of Lent?
First, let's examine what Jesus actually says. "Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them." He didn't say: "Don't do these deeds." He said: "Don't do them with this intention." Again: "When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you ... to win the praise of others." He didn't say: "Don't give alms." He said: "Don't do it this way, for this reason."
The instructions about prayer and fasting are similar. "Do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. ... Do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance so that they may appear to others to be fasting."
Right action; wrong motivation.
The question is: Do we place ashes on our foreheads to show off? If so, we need to change. But for most of us, showing off isn't our aim. Rather, the ashes are a humble reminder to ourselves — and a public declaration to others — that we're sinners, rallying for the cause of repentance. In a city in which the public display of support for the Blues and Cardinals is a regular feature of life — and rightly so — why should the public display of faith be a foreign concept? It's just another way of declaring what team we're on.
Second, let's think about context. Jesus was always looking for a deeper integration of interior faith and visible expression of that faith. He challenged people wherever they were most lacking. In a context in which people were going through the motions without having their hearts in it, He brought the interior dimension of the faith to the forefront.
In our context, people have grown accustomed to being privately opposed to abortion but publicly in favor of it. People think they can be privately spiritual without being publicly religious. People are faithful within the walls of their church, but afraid to display their faith in the public square. In our context, Jesus would do what He always did: encourage deeper integration of interior faith with the visible expression of that faith. But He might bring the visible expression of faith to the forefront, because that's where we tend to be lacking.
In the Gospel on Monday, the Rich Young Man runs up to Jesus and asks him how to inherit eternal life (Mark 10). Jesus invites him to take the next step in discipleship, and he finds that hard. In the Gospel on Ash Wednesday, Jesus instructs His disciples not to perform righteous deeds with the wrong intention. He challenges them to take the next step in discipleship, and they find that hard.
Ash Wednesday challenges us to take the next step in discipleship: to make a public declaration of our faith — not as a matter of pride, but as a matter of repentance. Do we find that hard? Maybe that's a sign that Jesus has hit the mark again.
Deacon John Beckmann, a permanent deacon, assisting the pastor of St. Dominic Savio Parish in Affton, is also assigned to assist the pastor of St. George Parish in Affton, effective March 1, 2017.
Deacon Leonard Sisul, a permanent deacon, assisting the pastor of St. George Parish in Affton, is also assigned to assist the pastor of St. Dominic Savio Parish in Affton, effective March 1, 2017.