Ash Wednesday – Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 6:1-6,16-18

The three central acts for the devout Jew were prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The only fast actually laid down in the Mosaic law was that of the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:31), but in later Judaism, the practice of regular fasting was common. The Gospel tells us that John the Baptist used to fast, and he was contrasted with Jesus who ate with sinners (which does not mean that Jesus did not fast). The Pharisees also fasted regularly.

For Christians, too, these acts are all proper to the Lenten season. And all three can profitably be incorporated in some way into our lives during these six weeks.

Let us give some more time specifically to prayer, and not just saying prayers each day. We might think of learning something about ways of praying – the practice of Christian meditation as taught by John Main, Centering Prayer, Lectio Divina (based on reading of Scripture) or some form of Ignatian Prayer. There are many books available to learn about these methods which are basically very simple. They can also be found on the Internet. John Main recommends 20-30 minutes in meditation twice a day as ideal. That may seem a lot, but many of us, even in a busy day, do not have a problem with spending an hour or more on a TV programme. For some it may be possible to pray in a small group together with shared prayer.

There are now, in most places, only two official fast days in the whole of Lent. Some people would never think of fasting, although they may be on a diet which is even more stringent than what the Church asks. Fasting can consist of doing without something we do not really need, even if we are over the age for fasting: alcohol, nicotine, snacks and titbits… Sometimes it is harder to let go of these things than to eat fish – especially if you like fish!

And do not let us forget to share something of what we have with those who are in need. Why not take the money that would be spent on that fancy meal you decided to forego, and give it to those who do not know where their next meal is coming from? If you have given up movies for Lent, or any other indulgence, again let the money saved be diverted to the really needy.

The Gospel today emphasises the importance of doing all these things quietly and without ostentation. No one should even know we are praying more, sharing more, or doing without things. Once we draw attention to ourselves doing these things, they have lost their real purpose, which is to bring us closer to God and his ways.

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