Ash Wednesday Gospel Reflection

A Reading from the Gospel according to Matthew (Mt 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 be fasting,
except to your Father who is hidden.
And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”

The Gospel reading at hand is best understood when considered in light of the so-called parable of the lamp, which is recorded in the fourth chapter of Mark’s Gospel. The parable is simple. Christ asks His disciples “Is a lamp brought in to be placed under a bushel basket or under a bed, and not to be placed on a lampstand?” Presented right after the parable of the seed and the sower, the image of the lamp represents the light of Faith. With a bit of a humor, Christ teaches that Faith is useless unless it is visible.

At first, this parable seems to contradict today’s Gospel directly. If indeed Faith is meant to be visible, why does our Lord call those who publicly perform religious acts “hypocrites”? Further, does not Christ’s instruction to pray in secret correlate to placing the lamp of Faith under our bed?

Deeper analysis, however, will show that these two teachings are inversions of one another and, hence, complementary. In today’s Gospel, Our Lord warns against performing religious acts for public attention. This behavior is reprehensible and hypocritical insofar as it transfers the focus of religion from the Divine to the ego and its material affect. This hypocrisy transforms an otherwise pious act to an act of selfishness: rather than serve God, one serves instead his pride, his popularity, his mundanity. As a result, the light of Faith is rendered inscrutable as men turn in on themselves.

Our Lord illustrates this act of “turning in on oneself” in the parable of the lamp, using the image of a lamp under a bushel basket or a bed. Just as the passage from Matthew’s Gospel shows how works are rendered hypocritical when they are ordered toward material gain, this passage shows how faith is rendered hypocritical when it is not expressed in works. For we, who would not have known these things unless our Father in Heaven revealed them to us, must be careful to remember that our Faith is a gift from God. Thus, what is the difference between going out in public in shows of righteousness and hiding the lamp of our Faith deep within us? What is the difference insofar as we are withholding our gift of Faith from God?

Faith is a gift, a talent, which Our Father in secret bestows on us because “There is nothing hidden except to be made visible; nothing is secret except to come to the light.” (cf. Mk 4:22). God did not give us Faith for it to be kept secret; our Faith is meant to change the world, beginning with each human heart in which it is planted. Faith that is not expressed through works of love is stifled and suffocated in the soil of the heart. It is not enough to possess the lamp of Faith, for Faith without works is dead. Rather we must make returns on the talent our Master has entrusted to us: we must go out into the world, proclaiming the Gospel with our lives as He did with His.

Our Lord knows, however, that men tend to become vain and self-centered when faced with the duty of going before the world. This fault manifested itself even among the Apostles, who had to be rebuked for arguing amongst themselves over “who was the greatest.” Consequently, in this beautiful reading from Matthew, our Lord does not advocate the suppression of Faith, but rather the suppression of egotism which obfuscates faith. Look closely at what He is teaching: “do not seek your reward in the affirmation of the people,” He says “for then you are rendering to them what belongs to God.” Rather, always remember that “what you do for the least of these, you are doing for me.”

Render unto the world the things that are of the world. Do not keep your pride or your vanity; render them back unto the darkness from which they came. Let the world keep its affirmation and its riches, for you do not need either; rend your garments in penitence and your heart in contrition. The world will not see these things, but your Father in Heaven, who sees in secret, will see them. The world will not approve of those things for they will all despise you because of Him whose name you bear. But your Father in Heaven, who sees in secret, will approve of them and, on the last day, will claim you as His own.

Render unto God the things that are of God—be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect. And, if you wish to be perfect, pick up your cross daily and follow Christ. The Cross is the ultimate destiny of every Christian. Crucifixion is our ultimate end. The Cross is the ultimate expression of Faith—it can never be mounted for love of self. We must all be willing to die and to share in Christ’s death—to be despised and to be rejected; to tread the raging waters of oppression and hate; to follow so long as our Master beckons us to follow.

Our King wears not robes of silver and gold, but scars, and it is according to these scars that we will be judged. The good shepherd knows His own and His know Him. To those who kept their faith hidden, He will say: “Depart and return to your darkness!” And to those who were pierced for love, He will say: “Well done, my good and Faithful servant, come into your Father’s rest.”


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