Wednesday 26 February 2020: Ash Wednesday
Joel 2:12-18: 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Context: a city-centre diverse congregation in terms of culture, background, age and language at a parish Mass with the imposition of ashes
Aim: to hear Jesus’ call to make love the motivation of everything we do
Several years ago, I went on a pilgrimage to Spain. Each year the Bishop takes all the priests who have been ordained less than ten years away for a week of rest, retreat and renewal. It’s an important time just to enjoy being together, sharing our joys and successes, as well as talking about our difficulties and frustrations. One day, on our pilgrimage, we visited Salamanca and went to the Cathedral there. In fact, it’s actually two Cathedrals joined together. They’re both stunningly beautiful, with intricate Gothic and Baroque decoration. As I stood there, looking up at the stonework, I imagined the artists and craftsmen who built it hundreds of years ago. There were parts of the design that were so high and so inaccessible that it would be practically impossible to see it. Nevertheless, it was just as intricate and just as beautiful as every other part of the Cathedral. Which taught me an important lesson. The craftsmen knew that maybe no-one else would see that bit of decoration. But God would. They weren’t working for others; they were working for God.
Today, as we begin Lent, Jesus gives us some bracing instructions. He tells us to pray, to fast and to give alms. But each one of those instructions has an important condition. It must be secret. ‘Let no-one know you are fasting … go to your private room to pray … your left hand must not know what your right is doing.’
But here we are. We’ve come to a public service to hear a public call to conversion and we will walk out with a very public mark on our foreheads. So, what’s the point of being private? Surely, we should witness and evangelise and give a good example of Christian life. The point, I think, is that Jesus is focussing our attention not so much on what we do but why we do it. What are the intentions in the secret of our heart? If we’re not careful we can do what we do as Christians for all sorts of reasons. We pray out of obligation. We give in the hope we’ll get something in return. We fast in order to lose some weight. A priest once told me, ‘If you give something up but don’t pray more, you’re not fasting, you’re dieting!’
Jesus tells us that we should have one motivation, one reason for everything we do as Christians: love. And Lent is a time when we grow in love. St Therese of Lisieux once wrote to the novices in her convent: ‘You know well enough that Our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions, nor even at their difficulty, but at the love with which we do them.’
We fast, this Lent, not so that people will notice but in order to expand our hearts and grow in love. We give alms, not so that we will get anything in return but in order to let God’s love flow through us. We pray, not because we have to but simply to be with the God we love.
There’s a marvellous scene in the film A Man for All Seasons. It’s the story of St Thomas More, who was Lord Chancellor during the reign of Henry VIII. He was a man of great virtue and courage and holiness. And, ultimately, he was put to death for putting God first before the King.
In the film, it shows Thomas More meeting a young man called Richard Rich. He was an ambitious man, who wanted to get ahead, wanted to be noticed. He comes to Thomas More to ask for a job at court. For him that meant power and influence and honour. More offers him a job but as a teacher. Rich’s face drops. Thomas says to him, ‘You’d be a good teacher, perhaps a great one.’ Rich replies, ‘And who would know it?’ Thomas says to him, ‘You. Your pupils. Your friends. God. Not a bad public, that.’ But that wasn’t enough for Richard Rich. He thought only of himself: his position, his power, his honour.
In six weeks’, time we will recall Jesus dying on the cross. He did that for one reason alone: out of love for us. As we begin Lent, Jesus invites us to look, above all, at the intentions of our hearts. We enter the school of love, so that we can learn to love like Him.
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