(Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18)
The reflection for this Sunday’s Gospel is part of a longer version written by Joe Tedesco. Joe is a teacher of Theology at the University of Notre Dame and The Centre for Faith enrichment. The reflection is published in Pastoral Liturgy, Vol 48:2 of 2018 and is reprinted here with kind permission of the School of Philosophy and Theology, University of Notre Dame Australia.
Prayer, fasting and good works: an invitation to experiencing creation as God intends
Lots of things give us joy and happiness in our lives. Fine food and drink in a pleasant setting, a great movie, a day watching our favourite sport, or a special occasion where we dress to impress and catch up with friends. When we reflect on the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent which opens with the call to humble fasting, prayer and works for God, the tendency might be to become suspicious of those things in life which give us enjoyment especially if they are a little ostentatious. If something is pleasurable or obviously entertaining, then maybe we should distrust such activities lest they distract us from the serious business of religious devotion. The truth is more complex and deeper than that.
The readings of the Ash Wednesday liturgy point to a recognition that it is often not what activity is being performed that matters, but how, to what end and with what sort of inner disposition it is being done. Indeed, numerous times through the Scriptures we are reminded that all of creation, as well as our place in it, is good and pleasing …
However, our brokenness and sin means that this goodness is, at times, tainted and damaged by our action and inaction. Our connection to God, our most vital relationships with each other and our engagement with our world are all subject to our mistakes, poor judgment, and immorality; in a word, sin. But God loves creation and loves us. If there is any authority on what would be considered good it is Goodness itself and God has no intention of letting it be destroyed. Because of this, God is always drawing creation back to Godself.
The ultimate expression of this is, of course, found in the salvation of Christ. However, this call to return to God does not just ‘happen to us’, we are invited to ‘repent’; to turn and journey back to God and back to goodness. When we fast, pray and engage in good works during this time of Lent, we do so not to escape the world, but to be party to its transformation. It is a special season where we actively reorder our lives and the things in it to bring them back into line with God’s intent and to allow it to be ‘good’ again.
It is this which sits behind Jesus’ words in the Gospel. Such spiritual disciplines are about coming back to God and, by virtue of being in right relationship with God, discovering again just how beautiful and wonderful our creation is. It is little wonder that Jesus warns against the dismal figure looking so pretentiously pitiful while fasting. Such a figure, as well as the other characters Jesus cautions against, are engaging in a hypocritical show. Their spiritual activities which should, ultimately, be ‘others centred’ are self-indulgent and their reward has already been had because it comes from that self-satisfaction. It is a form of happiness that operates in a very small circle of the self. The readings of Lent remind us that prayer, fasting and good works open us up to a goodness and happiness far greater than that. They allow us to take in God’s intent for creation and the goodness behind it and, further, to get in rhythm with it. Then our 'reward becomes complete. It is fullness of life that lasts an eternity because it is woven into the goodness of God.
Is it easy? No, not necessarily. The self-satisfying tendency which Jesus is warning against is ever drawing our attention from what really matters. However, such acts that the Gospel asks us to engage in are not to break the spirit either and, moreover, they are not simply external shows of religious prowess. They are an inward journey (found in prayer and fasting) that impacts our outward reality (in good works and almsgiving). They are an opening up to the transformation that occurs within, where only the Father sees. © Joe Tedesco