The season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and is derived by counting back 40 days (not including Sundays) from Easter day. Ash Wednesday is so called because of the imposition of Ashes on the foreheads of faithful, which serve as a reminder of the call to repentance and to believe in the good news. The period of Lent is a reminder of the forty days that Jesus spent in the desert before taking up the mission he received from his father.
Immediately after the sixth antitheses (5:21-48) in the Sermon on the Mount, there follows instructions on three practices that were common among the Pharisees as a sign of closeness to God namely, alms-giving, prayer and fasting. All three though only a means to reach god can be made ends in themselves. Alms-giving can be ostentatious, prayer can be used to show-off and fasting can be used to point to one’s self. Jesus cautions the listeners about these dangers and challenges them to make them all internal activities that will lead the way to God rather than being made ends in themselves. The focus thus is on motivation with which one does what one does. If the motivation for doing good is to win the admiration of the human beings, then that action is selfish and self motivated and so does no good at all. If the action is done out of a sense of duty or obligation, it cannot be called pure and is instead diluted. However, if one does the action and accepts that the reward is in the performing of the action itself, such an action can be salvific. This is the challenge not only of Ash Wednesday, but of the whole season of Lent, “to give and not to count the cost, to labor and to look for no reward.”
For us Christians, Jesus has simplified matters. There is absolutely no obligation to love. When there is love then all our nations come from our hearts and spontaneously without counting the cost. Alms-giving becomes generous and spontaneous, prayer becomes union with God and leads to action and fasting is done in order to show our dependence on God and not on earthly things. How often have made “means” ends in themselves?
Taken from the Daily Reading, God’s Word 2013.