ASH WEDNESDAY (Cycles ABC)

Readings:
Joel 2:12-18
Psalm 51:1-4, 10-13
2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

Abbreviations: NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation). CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

God's divine plan for mankind is revealed in the two Testaments and that is why we reread and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy. The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095).

The Theme of this Sunday's Readings: Repent Before it is too Late!
The forty days of Lent begin on the Sunday after Ash Wednesday. The fortieth and final day of Lent (counting as the ancient's counted without a zero-place value and with the first Sunday of Lent counting as day #1) will be Holy Thursday. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of making our commitment to the Lenten fast. It is a day when we recall our mortality in that our days on earth are limited ("ashes to ashes, dust to dust"), and we need to prepare our souls to be right with God before we die and are called to Judgment. On Ash Wednesday and the three following days that are our preparation to begin our Lenten journey, the Scripture readings focus on almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.

In our Gospel Reading Jesus offers His teaching about the three disciplines of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Notice concerning these Christian disciplines that Jesus doesn't say "if" but He says "when" in Matthew 6:2, 5 and 16. It is His command that these acts that enrich our spiritual life be practiced with faith and persistence so that we continue to grow in holiness in our walk of faith toward our destination that is eternal salvation in the heavenly Kingdom. Each discipline has been, since the time of the Old Testament, a means of obtaining expiation of sins (Sir 3:30/33-31/34; Tob 12:8-9; Jam 5:20; 1 Pt 4:8; CCC 1434).

In our Lenten forty-day journey to holiness, we are called to recommit ourselves to live the Law of the New Covenant in loving God and our brothers, keeping in mind Jesus' warning in the Sermon on the Mount: Therefore, we aspire to please him, whether we are at home or away. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil (Mt 5:9-10). And in that same teaching that is our Gospel Reading, we must remember Jesus' command to show our love for God by showing His love for those in need through our almsgiving by which we exercise our discipline over the material world in favor of spiritual gifts, and through the spiritual practice of fasting united to prayer. It should be our goal to become a more spiritually alive Christian by the end of our forty-day journey to holiness.

The First Reading Joel 2:12-18 ~ Return to the Lord
12 Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; 13 rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God.  For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.  14 Perhaps he will again relent and leave behind him a blessing, offerings and libations for the LORD, your God.  15 Blow the trumpet in Zion!  Proclaim a fast, call an assembly; 16 gather the people, notify the congregation; assemble the elders, gather the children and the infants at the breast; let the bridegroom quit his room, and the bride her chamber.  17 Between the porch and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep, and say "Spare, O LORD, your people and make not your heritage a reproach, with the nations ruling over them!  Why should they say among the peoples, 'Where is their God?'"  18 Then the LORD was stirred to concern for his land and took pity on his people.

Joel was a prophet from the Southern Kingdom of Judah.  His book has resonance in the New Testament where his inspired words are quoted by St. Mark (Mk 4:26-29 quoting Joel 3:13), where echoes are found in the Gospel of John  from Joel 2:2 (Jn 1:5; 8:12; 13:30; 20:1) and where Jesus speaks of "living water" to the Samaritan woman that is reminiscent of Joel 3:18 (Jn 4:13-14).  St. Peter quotes from Joel 2:28-32 in his great homily on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:17-21) and St. Paul will use Joel 2:3 in expounding on the universal reach of the Gospel (Rom 10:12-13; Gal 3:28 and 6:15).  And finally, Joel 2:4-6 finds its fulfillment in the blowing of the fifth trumpet in the Book of Revelation (Rev. 9:7-12).

Our reading is from a poem in Chapter 2, describing how God manifests His divine presence among His people and ends with the exhortation that is an appeal on behalf of God for His people's conversion: "return to me with your whole heart," verse 12 in our reading.

The warning "even now" in verse 1 is a reminder that we must not delay in confessing our sins for if one delays it may be too late.  It is man's heartfelt sorrow for his sins and turning back to God that brings man to renewed fellowship with the Lord.  Central to Joel's words of warning in verse 13 is what makes conversion last.  Conversion and renewal must begin with man's sincere repentance and not in external acts that have no value like the custom of tearing one's garments that was a sign to others of remorse for sins (verse 13).  It is the inner grieving of the heart in man's heartfelt expression of penance and to which God responds with compassion.

We show forth our repentance and inner conversion through fasting, mourning, and tears as the whole community (the young, the old, the bridegroom and the bride) turns back to God, rejoicing in His mercy.  In verse 17 the prophet specifically mentions the priests' obligation to call the people to penance and to offer intercessory prayers for the community of the faithful.  It is through these verses that the Church calls the community of Christ to communal conversion and repentance on the solemn day of Ash Wednesday.  The hope of that conversion experience is expressed in verse 18 where the Lord is stirred to compassion and takes pity on His people.

Responsorial Psalm 51:1-4, 10-13 ~ Confession of our Sins opens us to God's Mercy
The response is: "Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned."
1 Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.  Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and my sin cleanse me. 
3For I acknowledge my offense, and my sin is before me always: 4 "Against you only have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight."
10 A clean heart create in me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.  11 Cast me not out from your presence, and your Holy Spirit take not from me.
12 Give me back the joy of your salvation, and a willing spirit sustain in me.  13 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.

In this psalm, attributed to David, we are given a beautiful example of genuine, heartfelt repentance and the psalmist's confidence that God is merciful and will extend his forgiveness.  Was David thinking of King Saul's sins that resulted in the loss of the protection of God's Spirit and the loss of his dynasty (1 Sam chapter 15)?  It was a loss that left Saul an empty and tormented man.  The Prophet Samuel's condemnation of Saul's offerings in 1 Samuel 15:22-23 can be compared to the definition of true sacrifice in Psalm 51:16.

In the opening verses, the psalmist feels the great weight of his sins.  He cries out to God for mercy and forgiveness (verses 1-2).  In verse 3 the psalmist demonstrates his true repentance by taking responsibility for his sins that he says are an offense to God.  Taking responsibility is a necessary act of genuine repentance.  In verses 10-11 the psalmist's plea for mercy extends beyond his confession of sin.  He begs God to renew his inner being so that he can return to fellowship with God by knowing the blessing of God's Spirit being with him.  In verse 12 the psalmist speaks of God's salvation.  Spiritual salvation is the gift of life that God possesses and bestows through His Spirit.  It is a gift that the prophets will write about (Jer 24:7; 31:33; Ez 25-27) and which will appear in the New Covenant that God will make with his people in the Age of the Messiah (Mt 26:28; Lk 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25).  Finally in verse 13, the psalmist expresses his joy in proclaiming praise of the Lord for delivering him, sustaining him, and restoring him.

The Second Reading 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 ~ Now is the Time to be Reconciled to God!
5:20 We are ambassadors for Christ, God as it were appealing through us.  We implore you, in Christ's name: be reconciled to God!  21 For our sakes God made him who did not know sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the very holiness of God. 
6:1 As your fellow workers we beg you not to receive the grace of God in vain.  2 For he says, "In an acceptable time I have heard you; on a day of salvation I have helped you."  Now is the acceptable time!  Now is the day of salvation!

Christians are God's emissaries sent out to call the world to conversion in Christ Jesus (20a).  St. Paul insists that we must convert and turn back to God now without delay (20b).  The reconciliation of man with God and restoration of fellowship with Him became necessary after the loss of grace through the original sin we inherited from the personal sin of Adam and Eve.  It was for us that God sent Jesus.  In God's mercy our redemption has been brought about through Jesus Christ.  Jesus was like all men except without sin (verse 21).  God made Him one with sinful humanity in order to make humanity one with His obedience and saving justice (Rom 5:19; 8:3; 2 Cor 5:14; Phil 2:7; Is 53:5-12; CCC 602).  Jesus became the Lamb of God who took away our sins (Jn 1:29).  Forgiveness is extended to us through Jesus' sacrifice.  He bore the sins of mankind and offered Himself on the altar of the cross as an atoning sacrifice for all mankind's sins (1 Pt 2:22-25).  When we sincerely confess our sins and offer penance, Jesus' atoning blood is applied to our lives, and we are cleansed of our sins and reconciled to God as He restores us to fellowship with Him (CCC 1421-24).

In 2 Corinthians 6:1-2, St. Paul exhorts Christians that to accept the "grace of God in vain" is to neglect the graces which God continues to bestow through the sacrifice of Christ.  The "acceptable time" for receiving God's grace of salvation through Christ Jesus will last until the last moment when each man and woman faces physical death, or until Christ returns in glory at the end of the age.  Until then every day is "the day of salvation," and the opportunity to repent and to turn back to God to be saved should not be wasted.

The Gospel of Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18 ~ The Disciplines of Almsgiving, Prayer, and Fasting
Jesus said to his disciples: 1"Be on guard against performing religious acts for people to see.  Otherwise expect no recompense from your heavenly Father.  2 When you give alms, for example, do not blow a horn before you in synagogues and streets like hypocrites looking for applause.  You can be sure of this much, they are already repaid.  3 In giving alms you are not to let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.  4 Keep your deeds of mercy secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.  5 When you are praying, do not behave like the hypocrites who love to stand and pray in synagogues or on street corners in order to be noticed.  I give you my word, they are already repaid.  6 Whenever you pray, go to your room, close your door, and pray to your Father in private.  Then your Father, who sees what no man sees, will repay you. [...] 16 When you fast, you are not to look glum as the hypocrites do.  They change the appearance of their faces so that others may see they are fasting.  I assure you, they are already repaid.  17 When you fast, see to it that you groom your hair and wash your face.  18 In that way no one can see you are fasting but your Father who is hidden; and your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you."

In chapter 6 Jesus continues His Sermon on the Mount, moving from teaching on the commands of the Old Testament law to teaching on other standards of Christian discipleship.  Jesus warns His disciples against external actions that are not generated from a sincere heart but offered in order to be seen and admired.  He gives three examples of acts that should be offered secretly in the private lives of Christians in order not to divert glory to God into glory to self:

  1. Almsgiving (Mt 6:1-4)
  2. Prayer (Mt 6:5-15)
  3. Fasting (Mt 6:16-18)

Jesus' teaching in this passage is similar to the message of the prophet Joel in the first reading.  External works of penance have no value in themselves.  Genuine works of penance must be related to real, heartfelt conversion to God.  One must be careful since the danger of hypocrisy and seeking earthly praise is always present and earthly praise is its own reward.  All that counts is that your heavenly Father sees your offering and you can relate your gift to constant conversion and love for God.  The interior penance of Christians can be expressed in many ways, but Sacred Scripture and the Fathers of the Church insist that the most important expressions of interior penance, aside from the purification of Christian Baptism and the purification of martyrdom for the faith, are found in the practices of almsgiving, prayer and fasting.  These three acts of Christian virtue express continual conversion in turning away from sin in three ways:

  1. Almsgiving: conversion in relation to others
  2. Prayer: conversion in relation to God
  3. Fasting: conversion in relation to oneself

Each of these acts of religion offers the Christian a means of obtaining expiation of sins (CCC 1434; Sir 3:30/33-31/34; Tob 12:8-9; Jam 5:20; 1 Pt 4:8).
Jesus' homily continues with His three-part teaching concerning the hidden motives of the heart and interior holiness.  He discusses the righteous Christian's obligations in these three acts that are the hallmarks of Christian penance (CCC 1434, 2043, 2447, 2462, 2744-45). The Catholic Church continues to encourage these three necessary acts of holiness: The interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways.  Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others... (CCC 1434).

JESUS TEACHES ABOUT ALMSGIVING

Matthew 6:1-4 ~ Be on guard against performing religious acts for people to see.  Otherwise expect no recompense from your heavenly Father.  2 When you give alms, for example, do not blow a horn before you in synagogues and streets like hypocrites looking for applause.  You can be sure of this much, they are already repaid.  3 In giving alms you are not to let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.  4 Keep your deeds of mercy secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you. 
Jesus is not questioning the giving of charity to the needy.  This is an obligation commanded in the Law of the Sinai Covenant (Ex 21:2; 22:20-26; 23:10ff; Dt 15:11).  Jesus is instead criticizing the intent of giving in the misuse of charity for self-glorification.  He is contrasting the insincerity of the "hypocrite" with the right conduct required of His disciples.  Once again His emphasis is on the internal origin of true holiness. 

Matthew 6:2 ~ When you give alms, for example, do not blow a horn before you in synagogues and streets like hypocrites looking for applause. 
Jesus is condemning the ostentatious way in which some wealthy Jews drew attention to themselves and flaunted their alms-giving.  Jesus' use of the word "hypocrites" is interesting because there is no counterpart for this Greek word in Hebrew or Aramaic (the common language of Jesus' time).  In Greek the word refers to playing a part in Greek drama.  In other words, the insincere almsgiver is only "play acting" for an audience and not sincerely giving from the heart. 

St. Augustine writes: A hypocrite is one who pretends to be something one is not.  This person pretends to be righteous yet shows no evidence of righteousness ... they receive no reward from God the searcher of the heart—only reproach for their deceit.  They may have a human reward, but from God they hear, "Depart from me, you workers of deceit.  You may speak my name, but you do not do my works" (St. Augustine, Sermon on the Mount 2.2.5).

Matthew 6:3-4 ~  In giving alms you are not to let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.  4 Keep your deeds of mercy secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you. 
Giving alms to the poor was an obligation under the Sinai Covenant.  Jesus is not suggesting that the giving of alms is only an option for the Christian.  Jesus says "When you give alms" in verse 2 and not "if you give."  Jesus also says that knowledge of your acts of charity should not be openly shared with friends and acquaintances because their admiration will be your reward.  However, if you act in secret your heavenly Father will reward you. An eternal reward is a much greater blessing than mere temporal acknowledgement and praise.

The Catholic Church teaches the following about almsgiving: 

See CCC 1434, 1438, 1969, 2447, 2462.

In the book of Tobit, the archangel Raphael praises prayer, fasting and almsgiving as virtuous acts, but he especially commends almsgiving saying: Prayer and fasting are good, but better than either is almsgiving accompanied by righteousness.  It is better to give alms than to store up gold; for almsgiving saves one from death and expiates every sin.  Those who regularly give alms shall enjoy a full life; but those habitually guilty of sin are their own worst enemies (Tob 12:8-10).

JESUS TEACHES ABOUT PRAYER

Matthew 6:5-6 ~ When you are praying, do not behave like the hypocrites who love to stand and pray in synagogues or on street corners in order to be noticed.  I give you my word, they are already repaid.  6 Whenever you pray, go to your room, close your door, and pray to your Father in private.  Then your Father, who sees what no man sees, will repay you."
Speaking to a Jewish audience, Jesus' words "When you are praying" are not referring to communal prayer in the local Synagogues and in the Temple but to the observed traditional hours of private prayer, both of which corresponded to the daily Temple liturgical worship services.   Jesus recommends that the communal prayer must not be the only form of prayer; He stresses the necessity for private prayer alone with God.  At many times during Jesus' ministry He found it necessary to withdraw from the crowds and from His disciples to pray in solitude to His Father as He did in His last prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (for a few of many examples see Mt 14:23; 26:36-46; Mk 6:46; 14:32, 34-35; Lk 6:12, 9:28; 22:40-46).

Once more Jesus addresses the necessity of seeking an interior desire to please God rather than exterior actions gaining the attention and approval of men, and once more Jesus used the Greek word "hypocrites" in verse 5 (as He did in 6:2).  He will use this word twelve times in Matthew's Gospel; six of those times in Matthew 23:13-29 where He applies the insult directly to the "teachers of the law" and the Pharisees.

Throughout His ministry Jesus taught His disciples about prayer:

  1. Prayer offered to God should come from a humble heart whether offered in private prayer or while praying with others. 
  2. When two of more pray together in agreement on a petition, He gave us assurance that God hears our prayers.
  3. Prayer should come from the depth of one's heart rather than only from the lips.
  4. In our prayers we should make our petitions trusting not in our needs but in God's goodness, because our Father knows what we need before we ask Him.
  5. We should be direct and persistent in our prayers.
  6. Prayer must be made with faith and offered in the name of Jesus, asking only for what is good and trusting God to meet our needs.
  7. Those who pray with a false heart or in pretense of righteousness will receive a severe judgment.

See Mt 6:5-8; 7:7-11; 18:19-20; 21:22; Mk 12:40; Lk 11:9-10; 18:1-8, 10-14; Jn 14:13-14; 15:7, 16; and 16:23-27.

Matthew 6:6 ~ Whenever you pray, go to your room, close your door, and pray to your Father in private.  Then your Father, who sees what no man sees, will repay you."
When not praying as a faith community, Jesus recommends that we literally pray in a confined space to avoid earthly distractions, or He may be referring figuratively to the "inner room" of our inner-most hearts and minds when we shut out the distractions of the world and focus entirely on speaking with God.  Notice that Jesus continually speaks of "when" you are praying in verse 6. Prayer is not an arbitrary choice; it is an obligation that expresses fellowship with God and love for God. 

 

Jesus is not banning public prayer which He often led during His ministry (see Mt 11:25ff; Mk 6:41; Lk 11:1; Jn 11:41-42) and which was an important part of liturgical worship in the Temple and in communal worship in the local Synagogues.  Prayer must not be self-centered instead of God-centered. Prayer is our personal and communal communication with our heavenly Father, and it is one of the ways we demonstrate our love for Him. 

JESUS TEACHES ABOUT FASTING

 

Jesus now turns to the third topic of the exercise of Christian virtues, fasting.
Matthew 6:16-18 ~ When you fast, you are not to look glum as the hypocrites do.  They change the appearance of their faces so that others may see they are fasting.  I assure you, they are already repaid.  17 When you fast, see to it that you groom your hair and wash your face.  18 In that way no one can see you are fasting but your Father who is hidden; and your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.
Once again Jesus uses the Greek word "hypocrites": one who "plays a role."  It is not a coincidence that the teaching about fasting should follow the teaching about prayer.  Fasting is meant to be a bodily cleansing that accompanies a spiritual cleansing in concentrated prayer.  According to the Law of the Sinai Covenant, God's people were required to fast on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (see Lev 16:31).  However, in Jesus' day the practice of regular fasting and prayer was common, especially in a forty-day period that led up to the Day of Atonement in which the faithful were to prepare themselves for communal repentance and reconciliation (as in our Lenten observance in which we prepare for the Easter Triduum).  Notice that Jesus uses "when you fast" in verses 16 and 17; it is the expected discipline of a disciple.

Jesus fasted for forty days after His baptism by John the Baptist and before His trial of temptation in the wilderness.  Moses fasted during his forty-day encounter with God on Mt. Sinai.  John the Baptist and his disciples practiced the discipline of fasting (Mt 9:14).  In Acts 13:1-3 and 14:23 the early Church practiced fasting in association with prayer.  In Acts 13:1-3 the Christian leaders of the Church at Antioch fasted and prayed when making a petition for divine assistance in the important decision of the election of Paul and Barnabas for a missionary journey.  In Acts 14:23 Paul and Barnabas fasted and prayed when appointing the leaders of the newly founded Christian communities.  Jesus was criticized because His disciples did not fast, but He told them that while He was with them it was a time of joy and fasting would be necessary later when He was no longer with them (Mt 9:15; Mk 2:18-20; Lk 5:33-35).  Jesus taught on fasting in this passage because He knew that the time was coming when fasting would be appropriate for His disciples and He wanted to prepare them for that time.  

Once again in verses 16-18 Jesus' emphasis is on being God-centered and not on being self-centered.  Christians must fast secretly in order to receive a heavenly reward.  "Fasting" is a form of penance in which a person imposes limits on the kind or quantity of food or drink consumed.  "Abstinence" is defined as refraining from certain food or drink as an exercise in increasing one's spiritual welfare or as prescribed by ecclesiastical law (universally or locally).  As commonly understood, abstinence is the action which inclines a Christian to the moral virtue of the moderate intake of food and drink as dictated as an act of faith inclined toward his own moral and spiritual welfare. A common example of abstinence is to refrain from eating meat as a personal sacrifice offered to Jesus.  From the earliest years of the Church, Christians have observed days of fasting and abstinence, notably during the season of Lent, in commemoration of Jesus' Passion and death. 

The obligation of the Catholic to observe days of fasting and abstinence is the 5th Precept of the Catholic Church (see CCC 2043, also see 1387; 1434, 1438).  CCC 2043b: The fifth precept ('You shall observe the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence.') ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepare us for the liturgical feasts; they help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.  The Church's universal law, which is found in the Code of Canon Law, states that all Fridays of the year are days of abstinence unless the local bishops' conference has made other provisions (with the approval of the Holy See).  The American Bishops' Conference has ruled that abstinence is required only on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent.  Abstinence on other Fridays of the year is, however, encouraged and this devotion may also be expressed by an act of mercy which replaces the penance of abstinence from meat.  Prescribed days of fast and abstinence for the universal Church are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. 

Use the next three days (Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday) to prepare for your Lenten journey by committing to submission to God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, by proclaiming your sacrificial Lenten gift to God through acts of charity, by offering a forty-day penitential abstaining from certain foods and drinks (except on Sundays), by a commitment to increase the quality of your prayer life, and by observing the Church's teaching on the Friday fast and abstinence from meat during the forty days of Lent.  For more about Lent see the document "The Lenten Journey: Everything you always wanted to know about Lent".

Catechism References:
Joel 2:12-13 (CCC 1430)
Psalm 51:12 (CCC 298, 431)
2 Corinthians 5:20-21 (CCC 2844), 5:20 (CCC 859, 1424, 1442); 5:21 (CCC 602); 6:2 (CCC 1041)
Matthew 6:1-6 (CCC 1430, 1969), 6:2-4 (CCC 1753, 2447), 6:2, 5 (CCC 1063); 6:6 (CCC 1693, 2608, 2655, 2691); 6:16-18 (CCC 1430); 6:16 (CCC 1063); 6:18 (CCC 575)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2014