Ash Wednesday. fr Gregory gives us encouragement in our Lenten fast, by helping us to see how when we fail we become more aware of our need for God’s mercy.
When you give alms … When you pray … When you fast …’ In Jesus’ words to his disciples which we hear in today’s Gospel, he takes it for granted that his disciples will do these things: it’s not if, but when. Jesus’ audience, it seems, need no encouragement to give alms, to pray, and to fast, but rather a word of warning: they are not to parade these good deeds before other people, but to do them inconspicuously – indeed, secretly.
Now, in some ways, that might seem like an odd emphasis with which to begin the season of Lent. After all, unlike Jesus’ disciples in the Gospel, we might well need a bit of encouragement to engage seriously with the season’s threefold discipline of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving at all. We might need to be reminded how each of these things, by helping us to order our priorities towards God, other people, and ourselves, helps us grow as human beings, and as Christians: the risk is that, when we hear a warning that fasting can be dangerous, we’re tempted not to take fasting seriously. When we hear that it is better to pray in our room with the door shut, we risk not bothering with that idea we had of going to church more often during Lent, but don’t actually get any more private prayer done either. We lose the joy of helping those in need as we plague ourselves with doubts about whether we’re doing it with the right motivation, or for appearances’ sake.
It’s almost as though you can’t win. If we don’t do penance, if we don’t make an effort to live the Christian life, then we know we’re failing, and falling short of what Jesus – quite literally, judging by today’s Gospel – expects of his followers. And yet it seems that, if we do make an effort, if we do challenge ourselves to practise our faith more deeply this Lent in these traditional forms of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, then we’re still risking failure, either by not meeting the goals we set ourselves, or by congratulating ourselves – and inviting others’ congratulations – if we do.
In fact, we might almost say that that’s what’s most penitential about penance – not so much the fact that praying, fasting and almsgiving aren’t always enjoyable, and often involve a struggle, but the fact that we fail at them. Human beings, as a rule, don’t like failing: we don’t like our pride being wounded as we’re reminded of our imperfections. Not for nothing, then, is humility – the opposite of pride – associated with the practice of penance. In fact, it can form the key to understanding its purpose: humility involves recognising the truth about ourselves, as opposed to the false image pride can create, and so establishing those right priorities for God, neighbour, and self which we said Lenten penances point us towards. And of course, that striking ritual of the imposition of ashes with which we mark the beginning of this season is a sign of that spirit of humility which we are to try and discover in the course of Lent.
So whether we fail in our Lenten penance by not even trying, by trying and not succeeding, or by succeeding in a superficial and self-satisfied way, the practice reminds us of our weakness, of our sinfulness, of our need for God’s mercy – and that, of course, is exactly what Lent is all about. It is a time to recall quite why, and how much, we need those great saving events which we prepare to commemorate at Easter.
‘Now,’ we heard St Paul tell the Corinthians, ‘is the favourable time; this is the day of salvation.’ This message the Church puts before us today, because it is now, as we enter upon this holy season of penance, that we are to be drawn – by recognising the truth of our utter dependence on God and his mercy – more deeply into that joyful realisation that, in Christ, we have indeed been saved.
Readings: Joel 2:12-18|2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2|Matthew 6:1-6,16-18