Ash Wednesday with its reminder that we are made of dust, adam, and will once again become dust when we die means to set the stage for deepened faith so that together with the three admonitions––fast, pray, give alms––we will really know the profundity of God’s life in our lives.
Three basic religious practices are to be done “in secret.” Charitable giving, prayer and fasting are all assumed to be standard, normative acts of piety. Jesus wants to make sure they are done for the right reasons and not for social approval.
The repetition of “in secret” is an exaggerated way to stress that God is the real audience, the one to whom such acts are really directed. . .
Jesus came from a world in which just about everything happened in public, where persons were rarely alone, and where religious life centered around what groups and families did together. There was a prophetic tradition of “rend your hearts, not your garments,” but even this depended upon a set of group mourning practices. Hearts were hung on sleeves for all to see. What people did and said in public was what they meant in private, simply because most of the time “private” did not exist.
Within that very public world, Jesus stakes out space for it. Private prayer, in “your room”? . . . This would be seen by no one but God? What a weird idea! ––Lucy Bregman
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
In Judaism, Christianity and Islam, prayer, fasting and almsgiving are considered practices of the faith. In this pericope, Jesus describes deplorable and ideal ways in which one can engage in these practices. . . He describes how each has been done while the doers are calling attention to their activities to other people. He then counsels the appropriate strategy to avoid attracting attention and the praise of other people.
A word must also be said about the fact that two of the three examples of hypocrites are associated with synagogues. There is no doubt that this reference has served to reinforce contempt for Jews on the part of Christians. Thus, it is essential to call attention to the fact that the gospel setting is first-century Palestine and the narrative presents an account of a teaching of the Jewish Jesus to his Jewish contemporaries, all of whom were associated with synagogues. The application of the story for Christians is to those who would be known in the churches for their philanthropy or who call attention to their ascetic practices. –– Regina Boisclair
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
The [reading] opens. . . with the prophet's call to sound the shofar from Zion as warning of the impending darkness of day of the Lord's judgment. While this selection continues with the Lord's call to return, the reading ends without clear assurance. Although the selection eliminates the details of impending devastation (2:3–11), with the inclusion of 2:1–2, this reading retains an apocalyptic fervor (see Isaiah 13). –– Regina Boisclair
2 Corinthians 5:20b––6:10
Paul speaks of the. . . soteriological significance of the incarnation and death of Jesus—the sinless one who suffered so that through him sinners are enabled to enter a right relationship with God (5:21). Recognizing that his efforts work together with that of God, Paul begs his readers not to trivialize the beneficence they have received from God. –– Regina Boisclair
Lucy Bregman, professor of religion at Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the author of several books including Beyond Silence and Denial: Death and Dying Reconsidered (WJK, 1999) and Preaching Death (Baylor Univ., 2011).
Regina Boisclair, a Roman Catholic biblical scholar, teaches at Alaska Pacific University, Anchorage, Alaska.
Homily Service 41, no. 2 (2007): 4-14.