Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving
(Readings: Joel 2:12-18; 2 Corinthians 5:20 - 6:2; Matthew 6:1-6; 16-18)
Introduction to Mass
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Season of Lent.
Lent is a period of preparation for Easter, and it's a season of the Church's year where the emphasis is on penitence. That doesn't mean we're obliged to reflect in a gloomy or cynical or hopeless way about how weak and sinful human beings are. The Season of Lent is really about the fact that in Christ God has rescued us from our weakness and sinfulness, and so if we turn to God, conversion and holiness and the real fulfilment of our lives are possible. Today's readings bring that meaning out.
The liturgy on Ash Wednesday, when it comes round every year, always links up two important aspects of Christian belief and Christian life.
The ashes themselves, which are distributed during the Mass, symbolise our mortality, the fact that one day we will depart from this life. When he's giving out the ashes the priest says: "Remember, man, you are dust, and to dust you shall return". Then he marks the sign of the cross with the ashes on each person's forehead.
At the end of the day, our time here on earth is very short. The traditional Christian view of things describes our earthly life as a pilgrimage through a foreign land, a period of exile which lasts until we reach our true home and our true destiny: life in complete communion with God himself.
The other aspect of Ash Wednesday follows on from that. Our life on earth isn't only a pilgrimage towards that goal, it's a preparation for it. God is available to us now, not just in the future. He calls us into friendship with him now.
The very fact that our time here on earth is short means that the call is urgent - "come back to me with all your heart," says the prophet Joel - speaking on behalf of God - "with fasting, and weeping and mourning".
In the gospel, Jesus gives his disciples some precise instructions about what to do to to help to bring about that turning-back to God that Joel was appealing for.
First of all he recommends almsgiving: in its most general sense, caring for other people, setting aside some of our own time or money or any other resource that we might have, especially for those suffering hardship of any kind.
The idea behind almsgiving is that it gives us an simple, practical way, as it were, of carrying out God's will and making up for the fact that we're not perfectly holy. We might be lacking in all sorts of qualities of character but at least we can always find ways of showing a bit of generosity to people.
You might remember how Jesus said that even giving a cup of water to someone who is thirsty is the sort of gesture that will win us a place in God's Kingdom. That's the principle behind almsgiving - we might have various faults and weaknesses that we never seem to get the better of - but we can redeem them or partially cancel them out, by being generous, by giving to other people out of our own resources.
Then Jesus reminds his followers how important it is to pray, how important it is to open our minds and our hearts to God and put our relationship with him on a stronger footing.
Sometimes I think we can fall into the habit of thinking that prayer is something we've got to do - it's a way of paying our dues to God, and we'll be judged negatively by him if we don't pray. Whereas what we've got to remember about prayer is that it's not something we do for God's sake or to benefit God. It's something we do for our sake, and it benefits us.
The more we get into the habit of praying regularly, turning to God and asking him for his presence and his help, or asking him to look after other people in some way, the more we're opening ourselves to God's influence on us, and the more we become like God.
Prayer has that effect on us when we persevere over time. It brings us close to God and it makes us like God. And that has a sort of knock-on effect, as we become a focus of God's Reign among the people we come into contact with.
And then, last of all, Christ mentions fasting: not only the idea of giving up food, or eating less - although that is an important spiritual practice in itself - but more generally having an element of self-denial and sacrifice in our spiritual life, partly for the sake of discipline and self-control, but mainly to help us remove our attachment to the things that interfere with us having a greater attachment to God.
"Then," Jesus says, when you do these things, "your Father , who sees what you do in secret, will reward you".
So those are the penitential themes which emerge in the Ash Wednesday Mass, and which mark the whole of the season of Lent, really. Let's express our willingness to enter into that spirit of penitence, especially for the six weeks or so of Lent, when we come forward and receive the ashes on our foreheads later in the today's Mass.