2.14.18 Ash Wed. beginning of Lent
1st Reading Book of the Prophet Joel 2: 12 – 18
2nd Letter to Corinthians 5: 20 – 6: 2
Gospel of Matthew 6: 1 – 6, 16 – 18
†Jesus said to his disciples: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites* do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
“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. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
“When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to others to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you. The Gospel of the Lord.
Homily: Fr. Mike Murphy Lenten Prayer
†Jesus singles out three fundamental pillars upon which a healthy spiritual life is based – prayer, fasting and almsgiving. At the time of †Jesus these were considered the cardinal works of a religious Jew. They were key signs of a pious, or godly person. True piety, though, is more than looking holy; true piety is loving devotion to God; an attitude of awe and reverence toward God, worship and obedience to God’s Will. Self-will is a primary barrier to having a mature spiritual life. We must reign in our own will and live according to God’s Will. This is why in the list of the ‘Gifts of the Holy Spirit’, in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (5:22) one of them is: “self-control”. It is controlling my self-will, so that I am obedient to God’s Will; that’s how central it is to the Spiritual Life.
In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul reminds us that we are to be “Ambassadors for Christ”. (2. Coe. 5:20) Fasting, almsgiving and prayer are the credentials of an ambassador for †Jesus. Fasting, as an ascetical practice, is more than just denying myself food. All the great early Church writers speak about including ‘fasting from bitterness of heart’, from resentment toward other people, to be reconciled with those who have hurt me or I have hurt them. That’s what fasting means – to fast from my pride.
To †Jesus, almsgiving is more than giving financial assistance to those in need. Almsgiving always has to do with justice – justice as well as charity; justice is to give each person their due. We are to help lift up those who are downtrodden; those who live on the fringes of society.
And for †Jesus, prayer is not just praying privately. Prayer includes keeping the Commandments. Prayer also means to be united with the community of believers – like we are here, today; this is part of our prayer. It is not just private prayer; it is coming together as a people of God to pray together. This is why we stress mass on Sunday, it is such an important value and virtue in the Christian Spiritual Life, because it means being obedient to †Jesus.
Let’s look at prayer for a moment. †Jesus asks us to have a relationship to both His Father and to Himself. (c.f.: Fr. Ron Rolheiser, O.M.I., Sacred Fire; Image Boks, N.Y. 2014; pp.46-48). So we are called to pray honestly, deeply, and privately. “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door and pray to your Father in secret.” (Matt.6:6) This invitation is found throughout the Gospels. Cultivating intimacy with †Jesus is central to Christianity, it is central to the Roman Catholic Tradition, it is central to Theology and Spirituality. And we find this expressed so beautifully – this sense of intimacy – in the Gospel according to John. The intimacy is seen in the person of the ‘Beloved Disciple’, he was the one who laid his head on the chest of †Jesus at the Last Supper – an intimate encounter with †Jesus. He was also the only one who stood beneath the cross when †Jesus died; the only one. John is that beautiful example of One who has that intimacy with †Jesus – through moments of great Joy (when putting his head on the chest of †Jesus) as well as being with †Jesus in moments of great agony and pain in our life – when we have to stand beneath the foot of the cross.
†Jesus calls us to prayer that is honest, and prayer that possesses integrity. And †Jesus describes how our life must reflect our prayer when He says in John’s Gospel: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”. (Jn.14:15)
According to Fr. Ron Rolheiser in his book: Sacred Fire, “In the Gospels, fidelity to keeping the Commandments is one of the major criteria to discern whether or not our private prayer is real or whether it is an illusion.” (ibid) Our prayer is honest when the ‘talk the talk’ is backed up by the ‘walk the walk’? That’s what it means to have integrity in our prayer, honesty in our prayer. We are not just blowing smoke in the face of the Lord with pious words and beautiful vocabulary – telling Him how much we love Him. “O Lord I melt when I am in your presence”. Well, if you are not keeping the Commandments – melt all you want – it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.
We are called to be “Ambassadors for Christ” and that happens when there is real and honest effort to keep the Commandments, to keep our moral life consistent with our faith. So this Lent, †Jesus desires to reshape and reform our hearts and our lives. As we heard proclaimed this morning from the Prophet Joel: “‘Even now’ says the Lord’: “Return to me with your whole heart…rend your hearts, not your garments and return to the Lord your God”. (Joel 2:12ff).
Beginning today, let us continue our journey to deeper intimacy with the Lord. Or maybe we have to start all over again, and today is that day. You might consider this prayer of St. Augustine we find in his Confessions to be our prayer for Lent:
“When I am completely united to YOU, there will be no more sorrows or trials;
entirely full of YOU, my life will be complete”.
In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.