Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
“Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them.
“When you pray, 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.
“When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting.”
Every year, Lent starts with these Gospel sayings on Ash Wednesday. And every year, people wonder: if Jesus tells us to do all these things in secret then why, exactly, are we talking about what we’re giving up for Lent, praying together and wearing ashes out into the world — doesn’t that contradict everything we were just told?
So it seems. If we dig a little deeper, though, we’ll find the key.
Notice what Jesus didn’t say. He didn’t say don’t perform righteous deeds. He didn’t say don’t pray. He didn’t say don’t fast. In every case, He was critiquing their intention — why they did the action (to win the praise of others). And in every case, that interior attitude shaped how they carried out the action — and He was critiquing that, as well.
Jesus was a spiritual physician. He diagnosed the problem: not what they were doing, but why they were doing it and how they were doing it. Then, to counteract the underlying cause, He prescribed a remedy: “Do it differently.”
But what if the underlying problem was different? What if the attitude was: “I try to hide my Lenten practice, because I’m embarrassed to be known as Catholic?” What if the attitude was: “I don’t pray before eating in a restaurant, because it’s awkward to pray in public?”
If the cause were different, then Jesus, being a good physician, would have prescribed a different remedy. And that’s exactly what He did on several occasions.
To those who were tempted to hide their religious practice, He said: “Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father” (Matthew 5:16). Different problem, different remedy!
To those who were embarrassed to be known as His followers, He said: “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this faithless and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of when He comes in His Father’s glory with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38). Different problem, different remedy!
Jesus wanted people to put the whole package together: the right actions, for the right reasons, in the right way. And, if we think about it, that whole package allows us to describe the common itinerary of the spiritual life. As children, we simply observe the outward form because that’s what we’re told to do, and that’s enough. Adolescents begin to question and rebel against the outward form because they don’t see why it’s being done. At this stage, they need to begin to put together what and why. Some young adults — many, these days — abandon the outward form altogether. Perhaps they really reject it. But I have a hunch it’s more often because a) no one explained the link between the interior and exterior aspects of religion, and b) no one gave witness to a graceful integration of the outward form and the inward reason.
If that’s so, it makes our task for Lent pretty clear. What the world needs from us is exactly what Jesus asks from us: to put the whole package together. What we do: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Why we do it: not to be seen, but to show the world God’s goodness. How we do it: not flamboyantly or egotistically, but generously and gracefully. It’s hard enough to do it for 40 days! But those 40 days are meant to teach us and train us to do it our whole lives.
That’s why we read this Gospel passage on Ash Wednesday: because it points us toward the whole package. Perhaps we could explain that more clearly. But if we respond generously — lining up the external disciplines of Lent and their internal purposes — then it will be a fruitful Lent for us, and for others.