A special edition of the Layman’s Homily for Ash Wednesday. Please enjoy.
Lent begins today. For the average person, that could mean very little. For the average Catholic, that means picking something to give up for 40 days (there are 46 days in Lent, but the six Sundays are not included in the fasting time). Today’s readings focus on the fasting and, much more importantly, the meaning behind the fasting. It isn’t just about giving something up like chocolate or junk food, but it’s about sacrificing in solidarity with the 40 days of fasting Jesus spent in the desert, during which he was tempted by Satan three times.
The first half of the first reading gives it away almost immediately:
Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.
For gracious and merciful is he,
slow to anger, rich in kindness,
and relenting in punishment.
(Full reading: Joel 2:12-18)
Despite the old trope, the Old Testament God is not always one of righteous fury. There is a clear element of forgiveness if you are willing to sacrifice everything to return to him. The fasting is not enough, Joel tells us – you have to mean it completely. If you don’t, your chance at salvation is out of reach. Further, the act of fasting is not meant to be shared. “Oh yeah?” a co-worker may inevitably say to you, “well, I gave up fast food and I’m doing so good.” Jesus warns against this.
“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.”
(Full reading: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18)
This is the famous speech Jesus gave on hypocrisy. In doing your good works quietly, you let your actions speak for you. When you brag, you draw attention to yourself and, consequently, away from God. So, if you were thinking that the past two weeks’ readings on honoring God through your work conflict with this, don’t worry: Jesus is not saying don’t let anyone know what you’re doing. Rather, it is a call to express your faith through action, not through self-promotion. In this way, we are given the chance to return to God, or, as Paul puts it in the second reading, “reconciled to God.”
We are ambassadors for Christ,
as if God were appealing through us.
We implore you on behalf of Christ,
be reconciled to God.
For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin,
so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.
(Full Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2)
As you go today to get your ashes and begin your Lenten sacrifice, remember that you are not doing this out of a mere tradition. You are doing something that ultimately works toward God. Take a moment and be thankful that chocolate or junk food are the only things you have to worry about sacrificing, as Jesus gave the ultimate sacrifice for you to be free of sin.