Ash Wednesday – Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

1“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

 2 “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

 5“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you…

 16“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

 19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

It is the first day of Lent. Are you giving something up to mark the season? Will you volunteer to serve the needy? Will you make a special donation to the homeless shelter or some other worthy cause? Will you attend extra services of prayer and devotion? Are all these questions making you feel guilty?

The people of the early church seemed to take their acts of penitence very seriously. So much so that it may be that the bishops and pastors of the early church had to rein in some of these practices. Some people think that Advent and Lenten seasons were created to force people get their repenting out of the way so that they would stop and do some celebrating at Christmas and Easter. Without prescribed, rigorous penitential seasons, some would have just kept on fasting, kneeling, and wearing sackcloth all the time. In fact, the council of Nicaea, the same one which wrote the creed, brought up this very issue. The bishops who gathered said people should stop kneeling while praying during the Easter season. It was time to stand up and own your forgiven status as a child of God. Enough of this groveling already!

Could it be any more different today? Our forebears in the faith, the sturdy Christians of the first generations after Jesus’ death and resurrection, seemed to have a strong urge to repent. I do not find myself reining in the penitential urge, either my own or my parishioners. How will you repent this Lenten season? Will you fast or kneel in prayer? Jesus assumes that you will do something. He urges you to practice your repentance with humility and for God, not so that others might see it. Most of all, practice it your penitence, however it may be done, as a way to acknowledge our Lord’s sacrifice for you and your great need for Him. Let your practice, your deeds, words, and habits, draw your life into his forgiving light. Don’t have a care for what others think. Have a care for what He has done and said to you.

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