Sermon by Fr. Joshua Bell SSC, Wednesday 17th February 2021 (Ash Wednesday)
Readings: Psalm 51; Matthew 6:1-6,16-18
If you use Facebook for more than just tuning into Mass, then the chances are that yesterday you’ll have seen a lot of people sharing photos of their pancakes, eaten en masse before Lent begins. And in normal years, today you would see lots of photos of people with smudged crosses on their foreheads. Because it’s become fashionable in recent years to take a photo of yourself, to share online, after receiving the imposition of ashes at Mass. There’s even a word for it: “ashtag”.
This year, with most churches shut, the equivalent is a slightly lower-tech version: if you type a plus sign, followed by a colon, and then a closed bracket, you get what looks, when you turn your head sideways, to be a smiley face with a cross above the eyes.
But sharing details of our Lenten practices is not something restricted to social media. How many times have we heard people talking about the things they’re giving up for lent – meat or alcohol or smoking? And when I was growing up it felt like there was a competition to give up the most impressive thing for lent.
All of which brings us back to today’s Gospel. From it we learn that making a big deal of your penitential practices was common even in the time of Jesus, who has no truck with it.
‘When you fast do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they pull long faces to let men know they are fasting. I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that no one will know you are fasting except your Father who sees all that is done in secret; and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.’
On Ash Wednesday we are reminded of our mortality – we are dust, and to dust we shall return. In the psalm we hear, and join in with, King David’s confession of his sins. Hardly the time to be boasting about our own piety.
The three pillars of Lent are the three things Jesus talks about in our gospel: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. They are all sacrifices in their own way: the giving of time to God, and the offering of our hearts and minds in prayer; the giving up of the things we enjoy, whatever that might be; and the giving of our money to those less fortunate. But they are all things to be done, if not secretly, then certainly they are to be done quietly. Our aim shouldn’t be to have people praise our piety, or our courage, or our generosity – our aim should be to grow closer to God through our sacrifices.