Ash Wednesday - Homily

Posted on the 17th Feb 2021 in the category Resources

God sees in secret


Today, Ash Wednesday, Lent begins, in which the Gospel (Mt 6:1–6 16–18) invites us to assume these three penitential ways of behaving: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. They all involve renunciation. Almsgiving involves a partial renunciation of our goods, our money, to meet the needs of people more in need than us. Fasting is a voluntary renunciation of our food, of our tastes, out of a matter of personal hygiene, of education of our most elementary instincts, but also here out of a need for equity and sharing with those who are most without. Prayer, then, is an even more radical renunciation of our will, to place ourselves in the hands of a greater, wiser and more benevolent will for all, not just for us, as our Father teaches.


The sixth chapter of Matthew's Gospel enumerates these three under a shared heading: that is, “Do none of them to be admired by others!” And then Jesus speaks about each of them in a few, very clear words, which repeat a pattern. Three key words emerge in the course of Jesus’s teaching: hypocrisy, reward and secrecy.


Jesus teaches there are two things we must do … 


First of all, we must not be hypocrites, or not behave like hypocrites. Hypocrisy would be doing these works publicly, to be praised by the people, to seek the approval of others. In this case, we would have already received our reward, namely the satisfaction, the recognition of others. "Do not be like the hypocrites", says the Gospel (which is certainly a poke at the Pharisees, who gave alms in the synagogues and in the streets or pray standing at the corners of public squares, or take on a sorrowful appearance to show others they fast). But, it is also common behaviour that is warned against here. We ourselves, without even realizing it, can assume behaviour of this kind: advertise ourselves or seek success. This is not the real reward. 


Second, we must act out of a secret encounter with God himself.  There is indeed a reward, but this happens “in secret”. “When you give alms, your left may not know what your right is doing, so that your alms remain secret”; “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father who is in secret”; “When you fast, perfume your head and wash your face, so that people do not see that you are fasting, but only your Father who is in secret”.


The utmost secrecy, therefore, to the point of being taciturn - uncommunicative to others: this is the real reward.  The real reward is not to receive any external approval, but only internal confirmation from God, of God. This is especially true for prayer. It is significant that the only recommendation that Jesus makes to us in this respect does not concern the need for public, community prayer (which remains formational and necessary for each one), but that of personal prayer, in the silence of our room. 


“Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  Ask yourself, do you believe it.  Are you prepared to go into the secret place and be honest with God, and God be honest with you? 

Sermon for Ash Wednesday, 17th February 2021