Each year as we begin Lent once again, the gospel reading is always this same passage from the Sermon on the Mount that speaks about the proper attitude in approaching God in prayer, for undertaking fasting, and for giving alms to the poor. Of course, the reason is that these are the three traditional practice that the Church recommends to her children during the holy season of Lent.
Not only are we to “pray more” or “pray better” during Lent. We are also challenged to do it for the right reason. Put negatively, as it is in today’s gospel passage, we are not to pray for show, or to be noticed. We don’t pray so that people will see how holy we are. We pray in order to draw closer to the Lord. We grow in intimacy with God by “going to our room” and being alone with God in prayer. This frequent “encounter” (as Pope Francis likes to call it) will deepen our relationship with the Lord. Our prayer no longer focuses on what we need but on an increased trust in God. We grow in an awareness of how much we rely on the Lord.
The Church has always recommended fasting as a spiritual discipline. Even at the time of Jesus, fasting was encouraged by the religious leaders. Jesus was asked why his disciples did not fast (and John’s did). Jesus uses the image of the Bridegroom to focus on the eschatological value of fasting. It teaches us what really matter: not food or possessions or any material things. We can do without all those things. The one thing that we cannot do without is a personal relationship with the Lord. It is another way of deepening our union with God. Again the gospel of Ash Wednesday reminds us that we don’t fast in order to be noticed or to send the message, “Look, how I fast. See how holy I am.” Fasting helps me recognize the relative importance of the things of earth and the ultimate importance of a relationship with God.
Almsgiving is the “flip side” of fasting. They are two side of the same coin. If I fast from food or alcohol or chocolate, I use what I have saved and share it with those in need. I can also fast from things that are “time wasters.” Then I share the time I have saved with those that I may assist in some way. Fasting frees me up to give of my things and myself with others. But again the gospel reminds us that it can never be for show. How sad it is to see people donating money or sponsoring projects so that they may bask in the adulation they receive. They give because they enjoy the recognition. “It cannot be that way with you,” Jesus tells his disciples. Our giving and sharing is an act of gratitude and does not seek any reward.
Let us allow our practice of prayer fasting and almsgiving be motivated by a desire to grow as disciples of the Lord. Let us not look for praise or attention for our good works. May these traditional Lenten practices lea us to a deeper relationship with the Lord.
by: Rev. Fr. Ron Bagley, CJM