Prayer, Fasting, and Alms-giving lead to Joy!

During Lent, we intensify our efforts to grow closer to God. We fast, pray and give alms, just as Jesus taught us in today’s Gospel. These are things we must do. Humanity has turned away from God. We all have sinned and turned from God—sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. Psalm 51 speaks to all of these types of sin. It uses three different Hebrew words: פשׁע (pesha), חטאה (chatta’ah), עוון (‘ă·wōn). Each of these expresses a different type of sin. I wasn’t able to find my notes from 4 years ago, but if I remember correctly: עוון refers to a general condition of sin within humanity, חטאה refers to sin committed unintentionally—sort of a side effect of human nature, and פשׁע refers to sin committed intentionally. (I’m fairly sure the words and the definitions are right, and I’m pretty sure that’s how they line up, but I’m not 100% sure!) These are all different ways we get turned around and separated from God. We need help turning back to God. The prophet Joel tells us all—the children, the elderly, those literally just married, even infants—to cry out, “Spare, O Lord, your people!” If the Lord does not forget the cry of the poor, neither will he forget the cry of his children who, poor in spirit, turn back to him.

Jesus today tells us how to make that turn back to him prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. And he tells us how to do each of these things. We are supposed to do all of these things in private, so that others cannot see them. In fact, Jesus takes it one step further: when we fast, we are supposed to anoint our head, wash our face, and no appear to be fasting. It’s as if he wants us to undertake these penances joyfully.

It may seem odd, but there is, actually, a logic to it. Let me explain. Prayer, fasting, and alms-giving clear space out of hearts, getting rid of all the cruft that has been building up: attachments to material things, over-concern about our bodies (see Matthew 6:25-34), or things we have allowed to take God’s place. We clear out all those things that get in between us and God. When we empty out that space, though, we need to fill it up with something. If we fill it up with the praise and adulation of those around us, what good would any penance do? What good would all this work do? We’d be no better off than the hypocrites Jesus talks about in the Gospel today. Instead, we do these things in secret, and offer them to God, so that He can fill up our heart. In addition to the great practice of giving things up, we should add additional time for prayer and the Sacraments during Lent, so that we are filling that space we spent all that energy to clear with God. God is the source of all our joy, and if we are full of him, how can we help but be joyful? Fasting, prayer, alms-giving—these things are not easy, but they clean out our hearts and open them to God, they give us more room for God to work in our lives: of course we’ll be more joyful, because God lives within us!

This is, in fact, what we must do to fulfill what God has asked us to do. Paul, in the second reading, reminds us that we are to be ambassadors for Christ. We must allow God to appeal to others through us. We must be lights, shining brightly with God’s love and his joy and his mercy. What better way is there to do that then to clear out all the junk from our hearts and let God fill it?

Now is an acceptable time, now is the day of salvation. This Lent, let’s do something a bit hard, to truly open up our hearts to God. The collect today was so excellent, it said “Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.” (Emphasis is mine.) This is our campaign of Christian service, by which Christ sends us to do battle with evil. We pray, fast, and give alms, so we get everything between us and God out of the way and go forth as joyful witnesses and ambassadors for God.

Today’s Readings
February 26, 2020
Ash Wednesday
Joel 2:12-18; Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6ab, 12-13, 14 & 17; 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

Reflection for the First Sunday of Lent / Year A

It is interesting how Genesis describes the fall of mankind. It seems that the woman is the first person to sin. A feminist might think that this is evidence that the Bible (and, by extension, the Church) is anti-woman, misogynist, or only finds value in men. That is, however, not the case. One of the most fascinating parts of this reading from Genesis, for me at least, is towards the end, where it says “and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her.”

If her husband is with her, why is Eve facing the evil one alone? Original sin is just as much of failure on the part of the husband—of Adam. It is a husband’s duty to protect his wife—his beloved—not just from physical threats, but also from any other kind of danger: mental and spiritual included. Both Adam and Eve sinned, and had either of them responded to temptation correctly this would never have happened.

The story of how sin entered the world is much more complex than a simple surface reading. There are many things that went wrong in the Genesis account. As I mentioned, the man did nothing to protect his wife from the evil one. A far more grievous mistake was when the woman engaged the serpent in conversation. Angels, even fallen angels, are far more intelligent than any human being. We cannot hope to win a battle of wits with an angel or a demon. Another problem is that the serpent was able to make an evil thing appear to be good; however, we know that certain things are evil. Directly contradicting a command of God is never going to turn out well. Adam and Eve both knew that, but they thought that by doing something evil—disobeying God—they would end up doing good—gaining knowledge. (One could observe that the Nazis employed a similar tactic by inflicting great evil on concentration camp victims in order to gain medical knowledge of the human body.) A final problem in Adam and Eve’s response was that they started to make room in their mind for the evil act. This is due to the previous to problems mentioned, because once you accept doing something as possible, it begins to occupy space in your mind. If they had simply cut off conversation with the serpent, or not considered disobeying God, they never would have considered that the tree was “good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom.”

The Gospel today parallels the Genesis account, but shows what happens when one responds correctly to temptation. First, Jesus is in the desert—not a garden. He can see the evil coming toward him and is not distracted by many things. The first temptation of the devil is for Jesus to turn stones into bread. Jesus is likely hungry after fasting for 40 days. Jesus responds by quoting Scripture: “one does not live on bread alone, but on every work that comes forth from the mouth of God.” He squarely places his confidence in his Father to protect him. The devil brings Jesus to the parapet, and tempts his pride, telling him that is he jumps the angels will catch him. He even quotes Scripture (Psalm 91) himself! This shows us that Scripture can be taken out of context and misused by enemies of God. Jesus replies quoting Deuteronomy: “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” He again does not engage the devil, saying only that he will not be tested. Finally, the devil takes Jesus to a high mountain, and tempts him to with control of all the kingdoms of the world. This is an evil thing to do, but of which good may come. If Jesus were in control, he could do much good! But Jesus again tells the devil to leave him, reminding him that only God is to be worshiped.

All of the mistakes in Genesis are overcome by Jesus: he trusts in the Father to protect him, he never engages the devil in a game of reason—only telling him to be gone and cease tempting him, he never mistook an evil act for good, and he never fell prey to making room in his mind for the temptations. In doing this, Jesus defeated the devil.

So let us learn from Jesus. When tempted, we should resort to trust in God for protection. We should remember good passages from scripture or simple, short prayers to strengthen us when we are in trouble, such as “Jesus I trust in you.” We should not consider the temptation, but focus on something else, such as God’s mercy, the image of Jesus on the Crucifix, or some work of art like the Pieta. Worship of God at Mass, Confession, and prayer will save us from temptation, so let us use all these means in the spiritual combat of Lent.

As Paul says, “through the disobedience of one man the many were made sinners, so, through the obedience of the one, the many will be made righteous.” Let us all strive to unify ourselves with Christ, and be one of the righteous.

Today’s Readings: Gn 2:7-9; 3:1-7; Ps 51:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 17; Rom 5:12-19; Mt 4:1-11

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