Today is Ash Wednesday, the start to our 40-day season of Lent. I know that we have all been considering (prayerfully) what it is that God wants us to commit to prayer, to give, and to fast from during this time. However, I notice a trend that may not be good. We have a tendency to be a little too vocal about our fasting, praying, and giving. In fact, conversations will often turn to the topic: “What are you giving up during Lent?”
Today’s Gospel reading squarely challenges us being too “sharing” about our Lenten sacrifices. Jesus, in Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18, gives us clear guidelines for how we should approach giving, prayer and fasting. He generally warns us: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them.”
When we give…
“…do not blow a trumpet before you…But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret.”
When we pray…
“…do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that others will see them…But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.”
When we fast…
“…anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden.”
We Christians need to be careful not to announce our fasting, or other penitential acts to others. As we walk through Lent, carrying our individual crosses and making our sacrifices, our penance should be secret. Because it isn’t actually about the sacrifices in and of themselves; it’s about the condition of our hearts. Jesus doesn’t want us to announce our sacrifices because that defeats the whole purpose of what these sacrifices should be accomplishing in our hearts.
It’s really beautiful that today we get to display a symbol of our faith in ash on our foreheads, but that is really as overt as this season of penance should get. Remember, the simple fact that you are fasting won’t be compelling to anyone outside of the faith. But the spiritual effect of secret fasting will produce great fruit in your life, and that fruit will be a powerful witness for Christ in the world.