I am always slightly amused every Ash Wednesday as I hear today's Gospel proclaimed at Holy Mass: "Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven."
We take these words of Jesus as our "marching orders" for this penitential season of Lent, and well we should. "When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing." "When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret." "When you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men." Alms, Fasting and Prayer are the three anchors, you might say, in living this holy season well.
And yet, it must be admitted, during no other liturgical season are we so "communal". I'm told that in NY people are lined outside Catholic Churches to receive the Blessed Ashes. (And they are not all Catholics.) We try to go to Holy Mass more often, we gather on Friday nights to pray the Stations of the Cross together and in many parishes afterward gather for a simple meal of bread and soup and maybe fish. We increase our works of charity often doing it with others in a communal effort.
And yet, throughout this Gospel Jesus says, when you do these things, do them so that God sees them and not for men!
It seems a bit of a quandary and yet it need not be. In the 2nd Reading for Office of Readings we get a clue: " Let us fix our attention on the blood of Christ," says St. Clement in his letter to the Corinthians. The First Reading at Mass definitely has a communal character as we are told, "Blow the trumpet in Zion! Call a solemn assembly!"
There is an innate sense in us, not necessarily expressed, that there is no secret sin, no secret fault, even if for a time we may succeed in fooling ourselves that it is so. "I give you a new commandment, love one another as I have loved you," Jesus tells us through his apostles during the Last Supper. "Abide in me and I in you." Whatever we do that injuries the Body of Christ, injuries the Christ the Head.
We have to admit that often when we do something we have mixed motives. Jesus is telling us as we begin our days of penance to fix our whole being on Him. "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus..." It's fine if our alms or fasting or works of charity are done in public and are even known and seen. But let them be done in a way that those who see us are able to be meet Christ and be moved, even if just a little bit, by our love for him.
Many of the saints are a wonderful example of this but, of course, we like to tell you about St. Dominic! St. Dominic was an extremely penitential person. He ate little more than a bit of fish or an egg; he never had his own bed but spent his nights in the church praying and weeping and would then fall asleep on the altar steps! He never hesitated to sell his precious books during a famine so that there could be some money to feed the hungry.
Bl. Jordan of Saxony, St. Dominic's successor as Master of the Order tells us:
But more splendid than the miracles were his sublime character and burning zeal, which indisputably proved him a true vessel of honor and grace, a vessel adorned with every precious stone. His mind always retained its usual calm, unless he was stirred by compassion and mercy; and, because a joyful heart begets a cheerful face, he manifested the peaceful harmony within his soul by his cordial manner and his pleasant countenance. So steadfastly did he adhere to a decision reached before God that he seldom, if ever, changed a resolve born of due reflection. And, while the joy which shone in his features bore witness to a clear conscience, the light of his countenance was not cast down to the ground.
This cheerfulness is what enabled him so easily to win everyone's affection, for, as soon as they looked at him, they were captivated. No matter where he happened to be, whether on a journey with his companions or in the house of a stranger, or even in the presence of princes, prelates, or other dignitaries, his conversation was always edifying and abounded with allusions which would draw his hearers toward love for Christ and away from love of the world. At all times his words and his works proclaimed him a man of the Gospel. During the day, none was more affable, none more pleasant to his brethren or associates.
At night none was more instant in prayer or watching. In the evening, tears found a place with him and, in the morning, gladness. The daytime he shared with his neighbor, but the night he dedicated to God, for he knew that, in the daytime, God has commanded His mercy, and a canticle to Him in the night.
We wish each of you a holy and joyful season of penance as we prepare for the the glorious feast of our Redemption. May God give us the grace and strength to live this Season well and faithfully fulfill our works of penance!
Just a reminder: The Holy Father begins Lent today by celebrating Ash Wednesday at Santa Sabina, the Dominican headquarters in Rome. You can watch this on EWTN live at 10:30AM and an encore at 6:00PM. Welcome Holy Father to our home!