Jesus teaches in today’s Gospel about the proper attitude when it comes to praying, fasting, and almsgiving. He warns the disciples to “take care” not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them. “Take care” indicates that we as disciples need to be attentive to our motivations, and this applies especially to us as we enter Lent and take on the traditional penitential practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Jesus speaks about doing these things “in secret”, i.e., where only the Father can see. What we do should be for God alone – it about our relationship with God and not seeking any sort of earthly reward including the recognition or praise of others. What Jesus describes is doing something with a genuinely loving attitude, i.e., giving of one’s self without a self-interested motive. This is something that reveals God who is love.
I was recently on the receiving end of someone’s “secret” almsgiving, and it was an amazing experience of mercy. Last Tuesday, I drove down to the Cathedral with Deacon Lou and another fellow for the installation Mass of Archbishop Perez. We were told in advance that there would be no parking available at the Cathedral parking lot, so I headed right to the nearby parking garage that I often use. It was full. I went next to the Sheraton Hotel’s garage, also a place I’ve parked many times, and drove down the entrance ramp. There was a sign there that said, “authorized vehicles only.” I ignored the sign and continued down the ramp to the gate. It became clear that one needed a parking pass or security card to activate the gate. By this point, there was a car or two behind me, and I couldn’t back out. I was stuck. A man approached the car. I first thought he was an attendant. He said, “You guys look like you’re going to the installation.” “Yes. We are.” He said, “use this…. I’ll find another place to park.” He handed us a piece of paper and walked away. I held it up to the scanner, and the gate opened. It wasn’t until I was down into the garage that I realized that the man had given me his own parking pass – a pass that cost him more than twenty dollars. He was probably the man in the car behind us. I didn’t even get his name or have a chance to thank him. In my poor planning and arrogance, I got stuck, and this man, who had every right to be angry, was gracious and merciful. He literally paid the price for my entry so I could go free. May God repay him for his kindness!
The ashes we wear today on our foreheads remind us that we are dust – that we’ve been formed out of dust – out of nothing. Everything in life has been given to us. The ashes remind us that we are sinners who, when stuck in the nothingness of sin, have been met by an unexpected mercy. As St. Paul describes it, “For our sake he became sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” It is the experience of being loved in this “hidden” or “secret” way that moves us to give and to pray and to make sacrifices freely. There should be nothing gloomy about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving if they are coming from the right motivation. What we do during Lent is intended to make us more attentive to God’s grace in our lives and our need for his grace and mercy. If we take care of how and why we give and pray and fast, we too, like that man who helped me, can become “ambassadors for Christ”, i.e., people who reveal his mercy and kindness.