Gospel of the Ash Wednesday
Jesus said to His disciples: 1“Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.
2 “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. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, 4 so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
5 “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. 6 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.
16 “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. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 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” (Mt 6:1-6, 16-18).
I – Conversion: The Invitation of God’s Ambassadors
The Liturgy of Ash Wednesday opens the penitential season of Lent, which the Holy Church reserves for her faithful for a change of life. That resolution of conversion which we so often formulate at the beginning of the year and do not carry out, can be taken up again now, with the graces proper to this period.
Wise as she is, the Mystical Bride of Christ wants our souls to be cleansed of the attachments we have accumulated over the months, with a view to the most important Solemnity of the year, the Easter Triduum, in which we commemorate the mysteries of Our Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection. At her petition, the Holy Spirit is attentive in distributing graces of amendment to Catholics who wish to take these days seriously.
“Remember that you are dust”
At this celebration the Church prescribes the imposition of ashes, complementing in a very symbolic way the fasting that marks the Liturgy. This rite reminds us that all earthly goods are of no value to man who, in the normal process of nature, must die and return to the dust from which he came, as one of the formulas used in the ceremony clearly underlines: “Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris – Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The readings for this day bring together some of the most authoritative voices to speak in the name of God, from both the Old and New Testaments, urging us to return to the Lord, whom, unfortunately, we often abandon in order to embrace sin…
“Return to Me!”: the cry of the true prophets
In the Old Testament we often observe how, after immense calamities occasioned by the sins of the chosen people, God calls them to conversion through His authentic emissaries, the prophets.
This happened four hundred years before the Divine Redeemer’s coming, in the time of Joel, whose oracle is found in the first reading (cf. Jl 2:12-18). The prophet foresaw tremendous punishments for Israel: “Blow the horn in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming! Yes, it approaches, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of thick clouds!” (Jl 2:1-2).
The threat of imminent punishment has always been a resource used by God in prophetic language to urge a change of course. The Scriptures show how many times the warning was fulfilled when, ignoring the voice of the divine ambassador, the Jews failed to produce the works of conversion. To prevent the punishment, it was enough to adopt the way of penitence indicated: “return to Me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning” (Jl 2:12). When there is clear recognition of sin, repentance and request for forgiveness, the Lord, who is Mercy, is willing to go back on His threats and forget the faults committed. And He does so even for His own glory, lest His inheritance – which in the New Testament is the Holy Church – suffer the infamy of hearing wicked say: “Where is their God?” (Jl 2:17).
We see then that in penance we find the solution for many of the problems that beset our lives. For God not only forgives those who are converted, but also gives them new gifts to work a true restoration in their souls. When the divine footsteps begin to hasten and we hear the rumbling of the approaching chastisement, let us therefore ask the Lord for forgiveness with a heart open to correction.
The Liturgy also offers us the example of one of the most admirable converts of the Old Testament: David, who heeded the rebuke of another ambassador of God, the prophet Nathan, and made amends. Psalm 51, known as Miserere was composed by him to ask God’s forgiveness for his sins of adultery and murder. It reflects the perfect posture of the contrite soul: “A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me” (51:12). How beautiful is the story of a person who heard the voice of the prophets and corrected his life! His name, far from becoming a sign of ignominy, becomes a title of glory: King David, ancestor of the Messiah!
Christ’s ambassador among men
As in the Old Covenant, in the New Testament St. Paul the Apostle presents himself as the ambassador of God, this time made Man: Our Lord Jesus Christ. In the light of the mystery of the Redemption, this mission takes on a new light, as the Second Reading demonstrates: “Brothers and sisters: We are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20).
Reconciliation is for those who are outside of friendship with God, that is, for those who have committed any grave sin. With the exception of Our Lord Jesus Christ, of Our Lady and certainly of St. Joseph, who does not have some reason to beat his breast? To say otherwise would be presumptuous, for even if our conscience accuses us of only minor faults, we must consider that reparation for a single venial sin – since it is an offence against an infinite Being – cannot be made even by the merits of the Blessed Virgin, added to those of all the Blessed and Angels in Heaven. In order for our reparation to be satisfactory, the Father gave His Son to die on the Cross for us: “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” (2 Cor 5:21).
Finally, the Gospel, through the lips of the Divine Ambassador par excellence, warns us against the devil’s emissaries, whose hypocrisy, though dressed in religious garb, aims at leading us away from the path of salvation.
II – Pride, Weapon of the Devil’s Ambassadors
The Gospel verses of this commemoration, already amply commented upon on another occasion,1 highlight the trilogy formed by almsgiving, prayer and fasting, as pious works that make us pleasing to God. In this sense, the current obligatory penance in Lent is reduced to something almost symbolic: two days of fasting – Ash Wednesday and Good Friday – in addition to abstinence from meat on Fridays. There is, however, a fast of which Our Lord speaks more especially, a penance which will never be abolished or mitigated, but only more and more highly recommended, and which we can practise with great benefit to our souls. This fast is concerned with illusions pertaining to the spirit more than to the flesh.
Pride: the Pharisaism of every age
There is no sin that is not rooted in pride. And to combat it, one must place oneself in the contemplation of God: the more one loves the Lord, the more one receives the light to share in His happiness. This reality, so simple to state, represents man’s great difficulty on this earth. For this reason, those who wish to serve the devil in his work of perdition, and therefore set themselves up as his ambassadors, use this terrible vice to direct others along the paths that lead to hell.
Such madness is stigmatized by the Divine Master in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew, when describing a series of customs practised by those whom He calls “hypocrites”, referring, no doubt, to the Jews who allowed themselves to be guided by a religious practice entirely made up of the outward signs of the Pharisaic sect.
Do not ask for a reward already received
Jesus said to His disciples: 1 “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.”
In this first verse, Our Lord reproaches those who practise justice in order to be seen by others. However, in the previous chapter, which is also part of the Sermon on the Mount, He legitimizes the actions of those whose good deeds are seen by others: “A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house” (Mt 5:14-15).
At first sight, there seems to be a contradiction in the Saviour’s discourse. In reality, however, He teaches that one should not do good solely for this purpose, but above all to praise God. His warning, therefore, does not oblige one to hide good works in a safe; it only warns against the error of the Pharisees, who had so turned in on themselves as to forget the Lord.
As the word of the Divine Master is eternal and applies to all men, we too must take care not to practise justice with the intention of making ourselves the centre of attention of others. Whoever does this loses his merit and receives his recompense – that is, self-satisfaction – already on this earth. Consequently, he will not be able to appear before his particular judgement with the hope of receiving, as St. Paul did, “the crown of righteousness” (2 Tm 4:8).
The danger of “retributive affection”
2 “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. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, 4so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”
For the Jews, as for many contemporary men, alms-giving implied an enormous sacrifice… It cost them dearly to take from their own goods in order to favour their neighbour! And they tried to compensate this “great renunciation” with the reward of recognition. Trumpets were blown and everyone stopped to acclaim the benefactor, who swelled with pride. Once again Our Lord says that he who does this has already been repaid, for he has received as reward the accolade of others – an incense which, it is sad to note, vanishes with the first passing wind.
Another nuance should be taken into consideration. There is a tendency in human nature, especially in cultures where communicativeness and affection in relationships are more accentuated, that we could define as a desire for “retributive esteem”. Like someone who works to receive his salary at the end of the month, we are sometimes generous with others expecting a reciprocity which, when denied, produces strong resentment. Ultimately, the reproach that Our Lord makes to the Pharisees applies also to this selfish deviation of the instinct of sociability.
How can this instinct be used in an orderly fashion? It is Our Lord Jesus Christ, most perfect in His humanity, albeit with a divine personality, who answers us by His example. Without ceasing to be loving towards His brethren, throughout the Gospel He demonstrates His intense relationship with the Father, which then overflows into a disinterested desire to do good to others.
The emptiness of prayer for our own sake
5 “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. 6 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.”
The Pharisaic defects of that time, which included a ridiculous religious exhibitionism, required Our Lord to urge prayer in the discretion of one’s room and not in the presence of others. Does this mean that Catholics cannot pray in a public place? Obviously not. This passage teaches us that we must avoid making a display, whether through facial expressions or postures, that is intended to convince others that we have an exceptional piety or that we are being granted an ecstasy or a revelation…
At the same time, in criticizing the ostentatious prayer that characterized the Pharisaic brood of vipers, the Saviour warns us against a defect to which all mankind is prone. In ordinary life, a good Catholic should not take any action that would imply occupying the place reserved for God and the supernatural world. And here we repeat the point just made: our dealings with one another must be for God, and God is a simple being!2 The Catholic must be discreet, and not act like a child who continually shakes his rattle so that others will pay attention to him…
Vanity nullifies the value of any sacrifice
16 “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. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 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.”
On one occasion when Dr. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira talked to the author of these lines about some migraines he noticed him suffering, he recommended that, when this happened, he should never let the discomfort show in his physiognomy or external attitudes. And he illustrated this recommendation with a quaint but eloquent expression: “One does not leave the house wearing pyjamas.” In fact, it would be seen as strange for someone to get up in the morning and go out in public wearing his nightclothes. Such behaviour, on the physical level, would be equivalent someone going about drawing everyone’s attention to an interior situation that should remain in the soul’s intimacy with God.
This was the deplorable custom of the Pharisees. When they fasted, they would put ashes on their heads, leave their beards dishevelled, go about unkempt and with a sad face, to give others the impression that they were making an exceptional sacrifice.
This is not the attitude that the contemporary apostolate requires. In a society that shuns sacrifice, especially when made for love of Our Lord, those who renounce the enticements of the world must show the joy of serving God in order to highlight the emptiness of earthly goods. And since today people dress in an increasingly vulgar manner – when they do so at all – and often do not appreciate the importance of hygiene, it is fitting to unite cleanliness with the practice of virtue, and to manifest the happiness of the children of the true Church in their countenance and outward appearance.
Good works should be seen, so that the One who inspired them may be praised
Just as Our Lord, in order to fully accomplish His mission, wished to manifest himself during the three years of His public life, so the Church, as a visible society, must shine before the eyes of all. Contemplating her splendours becomes an occasion of graces for men and women, continuing the action of Jesus Christ himself over humanity. But this “seeing” must always have Him as its centre and end.
As far as we are concerned, when we have to be a point of reference for others, we must accept this only as a means to uplift them to God. The images presented by today’s Gospel show us how pride leads us into ridiculous behaviour; thus we are invited to simplicity of heart, and to never draw attention to ourselves. In short, these images teach us that whoever seeks his treasure on earth loses that of Heaven, and whoever renounces the rewards of the world gains those of Heaven.
III – The Clash of Two Prophetisms
In the Gospel at the beginning of Lent, the Divine Master shows the contrast between false and authentic piety and penance. Hypocrites make a show of almsgiving, prayers and fasting in order to please men and receive the reward offered by the world. However, Jesus teaches us that we should only desire retribution from God, which is promised to us by His legitimate ambassadors.
As in the days of Joel, of St. Paul or of Our Lord, the world today is also beset by terrible catastrophes. When it is not the threat of the most diverse forms of natural cataclysms, it is the danger of a world war on the verge of becoming nuclear that looms on the horizon. In the midst of this insecurity, God offers us once again in this Lent a favourable time for conversion.
The false promises of the devil’s ambassadors
In the year 2023, this penitential period takes on a special character. As in the epochs considered in the readings of this Liturgy, it is given to us to choose between the ambassadors of Christ, who present to us the way of salvation, and the new ambassadors of the devil who, like the Pharisees of Our Lord’s time, offer solutions based on pride and human resources, whose ultimate objective lies on this earth.
Scientific discoveries multiply in an attempt to make human life more pleasurable and prolong it indefinitely, as if full happiness were to be found in this world and not in Heaven.
Ever more daring and invasive technological advances proliferate, whose acceptance always demands some “disinterested surrender”, given the deleterious effects on health of the omnipresent cybernetic devices. A new religion with its own morality is imposed, whose “acts of piety” aim only at impressing the dominant opinion, generally averse to the Law of God.
It has become beautiful, for example, to ask pardon for “sins” committed against nature, sometimes going to extremes that violate common sense, or to do penance for acts considered “inappropriate” by the new morality, even if this means breaking with fidelity to the traditional teaching of Holy Church in matters of Faith and morals, while this same fidelity is considered rigidity and a lack of charity for not agreeing with the reigning relativism.
The devil’s ambassadors, while belittling the importance of the Sacraments and therefore of divine grace, overvalue science, which claims to put an end to certain ills, without ever doing so entirely. Like their leader, they never deliver what they promise, but take away what they claim to guarantee. In every age, the devil creates a pseudo-eternal well-being for man that makes him forget God.
What do Christ’s ambassador’s offer?
In a diametrically opposite direction, the ambassadors of Our Lord Jesus Christ, whose voices resound in this Liturgy which opens Lent, urge a true conversion of heart, the fruit of sincere repentance and a trusting entreaty for pardon, which manifests itself in acts of piety and authentic penance. These ambassadors, as St. Paul stresses in the Second Reading, give full value to God’s grace, urging that it not be received in vain (cf. 2 Cor 6:1).
It is worth asking ourselves: what prevents us from following the Apostle’s advice and allowing ourselves to be reconciled with God (cf. 2 Cor 5:20)?
There are several factors, including: not recognizing our own faults; not seeing in the events that surround us the hand of Providence calling us to himself; not seeing in God the kind, compassionate, patient Father, full of mercy, who consented to sacrifice His Only-begotten Son in order to redeem us (cf. 2 Cor 5:21); not seeking salvation in divine grace, granted through the Sacraments.
Simply put, we are prevented by giving more ear to the devil’s ambassadors than to Our Lord’s.
Faced with the alternative presented to us at the beginning of this penitential period, let us heed the voice of Christ coming to us through His ambassadors. And if our conscience accuses us of some fault, let us make a good Confession, which will truly reconcile us with God and be the turning point for a return to the right path, on which we shall persevere, with the help of grace, from now on. ◊
1 Cf. CLÁ DIAS, EP, João Scognamiglio. God Should Always Be in the Centre. In: Heralds of the Gospel. Nobleton. No. 28 (Feb., 2010); p.10-17. Having commented in detail in this article on the exegetical data concerning the customs denounced by Our Lord in the Gospel of Ash Wednesday, in the present lines more attention will be given to the moral applications beneficial for our days.
2 CCC 202.