At that time, Jesus said to His disciples, When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites who disfigure their face in order to appear to men as fasting. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward. But you, when you do fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not be seen fasting by men, but by your Father, Who is in secret, and your Father, Who sees in secret, will reward you. Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where rust and moth consume, and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where neither rust nor moth consumes, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be. -Matthew, 6:16-21
Yesterday for the first time, I burned palms in a metal bowl outside in my back yard to create the ash I would later use to mark myself with a cross. I’ve been practicing saying Mass as part of my formation process, and chose last night to read the Mass which begins with the blessing of the ashes. I was sweating so badly that after I marked myself, through the reading of the Mass I wiped my head several times, not realizing that I’d wipe off the cross of ash I’d put on moments before. It wasn’t until I saw myself in the mirror afterwards that I realized I’d smudged my entire face.
Jesus marks two types of people in passage today: those who fast in such a way as to receive the praise of others, or even simply the recognition. For them, their works are set to ensure that they are recognized for their sacrifice. Working with people who are at the margins, and having come from the margins in many ways myself, the people first described remind me very much of those who come needing recognition, those who need acknowledgment, those who in many ways may not have experienced what love is, but have grasped at it through fear, through desperation, through loneliness. While they receive the immediate recognition that they fast, what we may not realize is that in their lives, they have hungered and thirsted far longer that what we may understand. We see a person who wishes the instant gratification of recognition.
It takes a long time to know how to go into the inner room, close the door, and say “Our Father….” It requires courage not to face God as we know ourselves to truly be, for God knows and has always known this. What requires courage is recognize and accept that those behaviors, those choices that place us in the position to receive the praise of others keep us from receiving the praise and love that we truly need, that we truly desire. For many, including myself, the struggle is to let go of what we perceive that keeps us safe–that which in reality, holds us back from our true potential: beloved children of God.
Jesus asks us to fast in secret because the fast, the sacrifice, the action whatever it may be is meaningless unless it is done with God at it’s centre, with God as it’s desired goal, and as closeness to God as the end result. Jesus equates these praises as the wealth of this world, and reminds us that when we leave this world, we leave behind the things of this world. St. Francis lived closely with his companion, Lady Poverty–not because he wanted to punish himself, but because he knew to pursue the wealth of this world was to close our minds and our hearts to God; the privilege gained by wealth and status removes us from that which is, at it’s very core, the presence of God and the love of Christ Jesus. Praise, like wealth, is fleeting. Praise requires us to move our focus from God to our own frailty. Praise at it’s core is empty, and it only grants us the illusion of filling that which can only be filled by God.
Once we receive the ash upon our heads, we are reminded of this. But at some point, we must remove the ash, move past this day deeper into the season of Lent, deeper into seeking that which praise cannot come. Lent, the sacrifice which is part of this season, is not meant to punish our bodies but rather remind us of our ties to the world, remind us of our ties to the privilege which keeps us from knowing Christ. The sacrifice I have decided to make this season is not one of famine, or thirst. Rather, it is a sacrifice of praise. It is a renewal of prayer, of reflection, of contemplation, of my purpose, my role, my vocation, and to remove those things which at the end of the day have kept me from loving others.
Let us fast from that which keeps us from the commandment to love.
God love you.