March 6, 2019 - Ash Wednesday
Joel 2:12-18; 2 Cor 5:20; 6:2; Matt 6:1-6. 16-18
O.L. of the Mississippi Abbey, Iowa, USA
In what we call the Sermon on the Mount, that is, the long speech with which, in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus begins his preaching, He first establishes, in the series of Beatitudes, the fundamental charter of the new world - the kingdom of heaven - that he wishes to establish. Then Jesus explains that he did not come to repeal the Law but to bring it to its fullness, and he concludes: "If your justice does not exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven".
What does the word "justice" mean in this context? In the language and legal vision of the time, to be just consisted in conforming to the precepts of the Law, in three areas in particular: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. Jesus therefore told his listeners that if their almsgiving, prayer and fasting did not exceed the attitude of the Pharisees, they would not enter the Kingdom. Could it be that Jesus invites them to do more alms, to recite more prayers and to practice a more rigorous fast?
No! That is not what Jesus is calling them to - and calling us to. And this is explained immediately afterwards, in the text we have just read. "Beware, says Jesus, of doing your justice – or your righteousness -- before men, to be noticed by them. And then he gives his recommendations concerning what were considered the three pillars of justice, according to the Pharisees: almsgiving, prayer and fasting.
In these three areas, Jesus' teaching is a call to truth and righteousness of intent. Our true being, our true "I" to each of us, is at the most intimate centre of ourselves, where we receive our being from God, where we are constantly engendered by God's Breath of Life. Around this core, there are various layers of protective envelopes - all our "egos" - and we have added several more to better protect ourselves. So much so that we run the danger of always living on the surface of our being. We try to give others the best possible image of ourselves, and we easily indulge in this image, often being more foolish than those around us.
Concerning almsgiving, Jesus warns against practicing it, either to be noticed by others or even to give oneself a clear conscience. The less public the thing is, the less aware one will be of one's own generosity, the better it will be, for the only thing that really matters is the deep motivation, which, by its very nature, is secret to all, including to oneself, and which only the Father sees in secret.
The same goes for prayer. If we pray in order to be noticed - either by others, or by ourselves, or even by God - we have already received our reward. Our prayer does not go any further. True prayer is in the secret of the heart: it is not the one we could claim to teach, nor the one that gives us beautiful and warm feelings, nor the one that can be weighed. It is prayer naked, inner, beyond the gestures or words that can express it and that no one other than God can hear, not even ourselves. It is undoubtedly of that prayer that Saint Anthony of Egypt wanted to speak of, when he said that prayer is not yet pure as long as one is conscious of praying.
The evangelist Matthew introduces here the text of the Father and, in a passage that comes immediately after, which is the third element of the triptych, Jesus gives the same teaching about fasting.
May this Lent help us, each of us, to relieve ourselves of some additional layers of our ego, to allow us to live, in an ever greater truth, in all aspects of our lives, and thus penetrate ever more deeply into the interior life, which consists in being in as constant contact as possible with this point, in the heart of our being, where the exchange of Word is held, in secret, which constantly generates us to Life.