Commentary on the Readings
Ash Wednesday – March 6, 2019 – Year C
Lent: A Time of Fasting in Order to Nourish Us With the Word
“Man lives not on bread alone, but that all that proceeds from the mouth of God is life for man” (Deut 8:3). With these words, taken from Deuteronomy, Jesus rejects the proposal of the evil one who suggested that he commits all his energy and ability to produce bread. Man needs food, but just when he is satiated and his material needs are met, he becomes aware that there are deeper worries in him.
Believing that it is possible to quench the need for the infinite and the eternal folding oneself back on the realities of this world reveals a dramatic illusion: the beauty fades, “for youth and dark hair will not last” (Ecl 11:10); the goods promise a durable paradise on earth, but then a time comes when they are expropriated. We know that it will end thus, yet we naturally continue to entrust realization of our lives to ephemeral realities.
When we become aware of the transience of this world and we question ourselves on the meaning of our existence, when we enter into dialogue with the Lord, it is then that we make the leap and become real people. Rightly or not, for Muslims who do not raise their eyes to heaven, who do not establish an intimate relationship with God, they are not men.
The search for food and shelter, the drive to give continuity to our species, the search for what gives pleasure, are “appetites” we have in common with animals. Only when we experience the intimate need for another food, the specific of being human manifests itself in us.
Conscious of this, the prophet Amos announced: “Days are coming when I will send famine upon the land, not hunger for bread or thirst for water, but for hearing the Word of the Lord” (Am 8:11).
Lent is a privileged time to return to ourselves, to nourish and to let the divine grow within us. It is the time to listen to God’s Word. Not a superficial, distracted listening, almost fearful that the message penetrates too deeply into the mind and heart, causing disturbances and requires radical changes of direction in our lives.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Your word, O Lord, is food for the life you’ve given me.”
One of the calamities ancient people dreaded most was an invasion of locusts. Driven by the scorching desert wind, they came in swarms and wherever they rested, they wiped out every form of vegetation.
At the beginning of his book, the prophet Joel dramatically describes the consequences of the scourge that struck his homeland: “It has destroyed my vines and ruined my fig trees. It has stripped off their bark and left white their branches. The fields are in ruin…. Grieve, O you farmers … for the harvest of the field has perished” (Jl 1:7-11).
The biblical passage that leads us into the Lenten season is placed in this context. Why—the Israelites ask—were we afflicted by such misfortune? Is it a punishment, a retaliation from God, who resented because we have forgotten him?
Misfortunes—and such is the calamity of locusts—are painful events. They occur but are never sent by the Lord. They cause confusion and distress, however, if these sad moments are lived in the light of the Word of God, they can become moments of grace. The prophet helps his people to read the calamity that hit them like a call to conversion. The land—he says—has been invaded by locusts because you bent on the goods of this world. Welfare, prosperity, abundance, and wealth have strained a trap fatal to your faith.
Before introducing the people into the Promised Land, Moses had warned them against this dangerous temptation: “And when you have eaten and have been satisfied, when you have built your comfortable homes and live in them, when your livestock have multiplied, when you have silver and gold in abundance and an increase of good things of every kind, then do not let your heart become proud and do not forget the Lord, your God” (Deut 8:1-14).
Joel invites the Israelites to acknowledge that they lost their heads on material goods. They had reached the point of not thinking of anything else but feel good, enriched, search for the luxury, and indulge in the revelry. The calamity of locusts showed them how ephemeral wealth is in which they trusted, and how could it be taken away from them at any moment. Wheat, wine, and oil are precious, but woe to make them the only purpose of existence.
The experience of Israel is a lesson for us, often deceived by false promises of complete happiness that come from the goods of this world. When we fall back on material realities, considering them absolute, we always end up finding ourselves alone, disappointed and in a condition of death. Our comrades are tears, lament, and the bitterness of sin.
What to do? The heartfelt invitation that the Lord, by the mouth of his prophet, addressed to the Israelites is also valid for us: “Return to the Lord, your God with all your heart” (v. 12).
Lent is the time of the return to the Father’s house. We return home only when we are sure to be greeted by someone who loves us. If we remain stubbornly tied to the image of God that is familiar to us because it enters into our schemes, that of the Almighty who keeps his distance, establishes orders and prohibitions and demands respect, that of God who is ready to punish, we will not return willingly to him.
The first conversion of Lent, the most urgent and essential, then, is the correction of the image of God we are attached to, but that was created by our mind, not derived from the Word God. The God of the Bible is not one who repays with punishments (You did what is evil … And I’ll end you up!), but recovers and heals the wounds that man caused by sinning.
Here’s how the prophet Joel presents him today: “He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, full of kindness and he repents of having punished” (v. 13). It’s not enough to have realized that God loves us, awaits us, and will fill us with goods. He will not scold and punish us for our mistakes. We must have the courage to decide to embark on the journey.
Along the road that leads to the Lord, we must take into account that we will encounter difficulties; there will be sacrifices, painful cuts, and radical choices to make. For this reason, Lent is also a time of austerity, training to renouncement, deprivation, the stripping of all that weighs down our steps.
The approach to God will be accompanied—Joel, in fact, explains—by “laceration of the heart,” by “fasting, weeping, and mourning” (v. 12). However, we are not alone in the path of conversion. Next to us, there are many brothers and sisters who travel the same road, who encourage us by their words and by their example, who join us in “solemn assembly” (vv. 15-16) and, with the “ministers of Lord” together we ask God: “Forgive, O Lord, thy people” (v. 17).
The reading does not report the Lord’s answer to the prayers of his people, but Joel’s prophecy continues: “Fear not, O earth! Exult and rejoice. The threshing floors will be full of grain, the vats overflowing with new wine and oil. I will compensate you for the years devastated by grasshoppers, maybugs, crickets, and locusts. You will eat and be satisfied, and you will praise the name of the Lord, your God, who has done wonders for you” (Jl 2:21,24-26).
Sin has destroyed our lives, left us dry and skeletal as the trees of the countryside devoured by locusts. But sin will not have the final say; God’s merciful love will have the last word. He will transform the desert into a garden. Lent is a time of hope and joyful expectation: despite our denials, our weaknesses, our hesitations, God will guide our steps to meeting him.
Conversion is the central theme of Lent. In the First Reading, the invitation to conversion is formulated with these words: “Return to the Lord with all your heart” (Jl 2:12). For Joel, conversion is a way to go backward. Those who have put themselves on bad trails are invited to come back. People who have traveled the roads leading to the temples of the idols—which for us are money, success, and pleasure at all costs—should abandon them and “return” to God.
In the Second Reading, Paul takes up the same theme, but with a different image, he speaks of reconciliation. Even his exhortation is heartfelt: “Let God reconcile you!” He sees sin as a disagreement, a state of enmity, a discrepancy of views and intents between God and man. This hostility has to be overcome; it is necessary to restore harmony.
Paul’s painful experience with the Christians of Corinth to whom he is writing suggested the image of reconciliation. A few months before, the Corinthians grievously offended Paul. They had even kicked him out of their communities. It was not about a trivial misunderstanding, disagreement due to trivial reasons. It was the Gospel message itself—announced by Christ by the mouth of Paul—that had been placed in question and refused. That’s why the apostle reminds the Corinthians: “We are ambassadors for Christ as if God himself makes an appeal to you through us” (v. 20). It is not possible to reconcile with God without keeping the deal with his apostles, with those who are his spokesperson.
We have here a valuable indication for our Lenten journey. Reconciliation with God is not achieved through purification rites and ascetic practices, but through adherence to the message that is transmitted by God’s ambassadors—the heralds of His Word (Rom 10:14,17).
In the last part of the reading (6:1-2), to paraphrase a text of the prophet Isaiah (Is 49:8), Paul recalls the urgency of reconciliation with God: “This is the favorable time, this is the day of salvation” (6:2). Lent is an opportunity offered to us to rectify today, without delay, our relationship with the Lord.
The good God has put in our hearts the need to feel valued and appreciated. It is a precious stimulus to occupy actively our place within the community.
The exclusion, lack of recognition, and indifference are perceived to be a condemnation to marginalization. If others do not consider us, we feel we are a nobody; it is as if we did not exist. From the legitimate joy that is communicated to us by people’s approval, we can slip into the idolatry of our own image, in the frantic search for visibility at any cost, to the point of becoming slaves of the gaze of others and to live in function of appearance, of showing off.
The first words that Jesus addresses to us at the beginning of this Lent caution us of the danger of acting conceitedly (v. 1). If we do not seek the admiration of people, what then must be the goal of our actions?
In today’s passage, Jesus stresses seven times the reward reserved for those who behave according to his teachings. The idea of the reward was one of the cornerstones of the pharisaical religiousness: the godly man—the rabbis taught—with the observance of the commandments and precepts, accumulates merits before God and will be rewarded with blessings and well-being. The wicked instead “is indebted” and will serve his faults, in this or in the other life.
This was a theological conviction based on Old Testament texts and shared by all. Rabbi Akiba was one of the most famous rabbis at the beginning of the second century A.D. He explained it thus to his disciples: “When I see that the wine of my master does not sour, that his linen is not dented, his oil does not rot, his honey does not become rancid, I am sad because he is receiving all reward of his good deeds in this world. But when I see him in pain, I am delighted because he is saving goods that will be delivered to him in the future world.”
Is it in this sense that Jesus speaks of reward? The Gospel often mentions the “prize” reserved for the righteous, and also the “punishment” of the wicked: “The Son of Man shall come in the glory of his Father with the holy angels, and he will reward each one according to his deeds” (Mt 16:27). He invites us to “store up treasures for yourself with God, where no moth or rust can destroy it, nor thief comes and steals it” (Mt 6:20).
At first glance this form of reward is fine with us: it is perfectly in tune with our way of understanding ‘justice’, but does it conform to the Gospel? Jesus taught us to freely and disinterestedly give our lives. Does it make sense, then, to act in view of a reward? Is doing good to accumulate merit, not a selfish calculation? Does the religion of merits not reduce God to being an accountant?
The reward, which Jesus refers to, is not a better place and the highest in heaven, but the increased capacity to love, the most intimate union, the sharpest resemblance to the face of the Father. The “prize” is the joy to love gratuitously, as God does; it is that sense of belonging to his “Kingdom.”
We may be sons of God as infants (1 P 2:1) or as those who have already come a long way on the path towards the unattainable goal, which is the perfection of the Father who is in heaven (Mt 5:48). To progress in this maturation, at the beginning of Lent, Jesus proposes three ascetic practices: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. They formed the pillars of the Jewish spirituality and he presents them again in a new perspective, his own.
The first: almsgiving.
In any village in Israel, there were, at the time of Jesus, people responsible for collecting and distributing aid for the poor, orphans, widows, and the wayfarers. This charitable institution had undeniable merits but, for many, was often transformed into an opportunity to show off.
During the liturgical celebration of the Sabbath, there was the habit of publicly praising those who had made a generous offer. They were invited to stand up in the assembly, were held up as examples to all. They were accompanied to the place of honor, and they were accommodated alongside the rabbis.
Jesus has often witnessed—and certainly with deep unease—these shows and in fact, has described those who let themselves be put on stage as “hypocrites” (actors). He was not shocked; he just felt sorry because, for a moment of vanity, these people—even very good ones—squandered the precious opportunity to do good without being noticed, as God does, hiding to such an extent that one can even doubt about his existence.
Rather than “almsgiving,” today we speak of solidarity, of sharing, of attention to the needs of others. The term “alms” sounds a bit archaic, but it should be preserved because its etymological meaning is very nice. It comes from a Greek root verb meaning to be moved, to have mercy, to intervene on behalf of those in need because one feels emotionally involved in their problem. If we want to further deepen the sense of almsgiving, we recall that, in the Hebrew language, there is a term to define it. This is simply called ‘tzedakah’—justice.
For a Jew—and thus also for Jesus—almsgiving is not to drop from above a few cents, but to restore justice, to recognize that the goods of this world do not belong to man but to God. Whoever has taken more must return them to those to whom the Father destined them.
It is a lie to speak of mine, yours, his and ours because, “The earth and its fullness belong to the Lord, the world and its inhabitants” (Ps 24:1). People are only diners invited to his banquet. This is why Jesus recommended his disciples to do justice in secret: “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (vv. 3-4).
The self-complacency is out of place and the beneficiary should not feel any discomfort or feel indebted to those who do good because he is only giving back what belongs to the Father in heaven. The Church Fathers had understood this truth well. Just to mention one, St. Ambrose, he said to the rich: “Remember that you do not give what is yours to the poor; you only give back what is due to them.”
The second Lenten practice: prayer.
Today prayer is in crisis, not for the bad will of the faithful, but because it is not easy to understand its value and the way to do it. How to pray during Lent? Repeating more frequently the prayers that we have been taught.
Jesus recommended, “not to use a lot of words as the pagans do, for they believe that the more they say, the more chance they have of being heard” (Mt 6:7).
We also ask: Why present to God what he already knows? “Your Father knows what you need even before you ask Him” (Mt 6:8). Why solicit his intervention if he already wants the good of man? Can our prayer force him to change his plan?
At the time of Jesus—as it is now—there were two forms of prayer: one public and one private. Public prayer was made in the temple, in the synagogues and in the streets, twice a day. At nine in the morning and three in the afternoon, while at the temple, the sacrifice was being offered, every devout Jew, wherever he was, turned toward Jerusalem and joined spiritually to the rite that was celebrated there.
Jesus does not condemn this practice. He remained faithful to it but warns against the danger of “losing the reward,” that is, to ruin it, to render it ineffective, with ostentation.
Then he focuses on the other form of prayer, private prayer, the one made in one’s own room, behind closed doors, in intimacy with the Father “who sees in secret.” This prayer is not a repetition of formulas or even a list of demands. It is a dialogue with God, not to convince him to do our will and to fulfill our dreams, but to be introduced in his thought, to internalize his designs and to receive from him the force to carry out the task assigned to us in the building of his kingdom.
Prayer is first of all listening, openness of heart to welcome God’s plans and not to disappoint his expectations. It is time-consuming and also needs an ambient conducive to concentration and meditation.
Jesus knew how to pray, and also to choose suitable places, as the evangelists remind us: “Very early in the morning, before daylight, Jesus went off to a lonely place where he prayed” (Mk 1:35); “And having sent the people off, he went by himself to the hillside to pray” (Mk 6:46); “As for Jesus he would often withdraw to solitary places and pray” (Lk 5:16); “Jesus spent the whole night in prayer with God” (Lk 6:12).
This prayer always gets “its reward”: it keeps the thoughts and actions of man in harmony with those of God.
The third practice: fasting.
It exists in every religion as an expression of mourning and pain. It is often accompanied by gestures such as the renunciation of body care, sleeping on the ground, sprinkling oneself with dust and ash, and dressing in sackcloth.
In Jesus’ time, it was believed that it was highly meritorious: it served to amend sins, to move the Lord to pity, to avert his punishments, to ward off calamities. In Israel, it had assumed such an importance that a saying circulated in the Roman Empire: “Fasting as a Jew.” The most pious came to abstain completely from food from dawn to dusk, two days per week, on Mondays and Thursdays (Lk 18:12) and every teacher gave precise instructions to his disciples on this point.
That being the case, the little importance given to fasting in the New Testament is surprising. In his letters, Paul never mentions it and Jesus speaks of it only on two occasions: one to justify his disciples who do not practice it (Mt 9:14), the other—the one we find in today’s Gospel—to indicate the provisions that characterize the true fast.
The Christian community is aware of having the bridegroom with them “always even to the end of this world” (Mt 28:20), therefore she does not fast “as do the hypocrites, they put on a gloomy face” (v. 16). Fasting of the disciple has a radically different meaning: it is not an expression of mourning and grief, but of joy for the presence in the world of God’s Kingdom.
The Christian fasts “washing your face and make yourself look cheerful.” He does not exert any effort; he does not want his sacrifice to be noticed. He is happy because, with his renouncement, he has the joy of seeing the poor enjoying the relief given. This fasting is different from that of the Pharisees and is in line with the prophets who have severely condemned false fasting. They said: It’s enough calling “the bowing down one’s head and making use of sackcloth and ashes” (Is 58:4-5) while you oppress your laborers, striking each other with wicked blowsas fasting and a day pleasing to the Lord.
This is the acceptable fast to God: “breaking the fetters of injustice and unfastening the thongs of the yoke, setting the oppressed free and breaking every yoke. Fast by sharing your bread with the hungry, bring to your house the homeless, clothe the one you see naked” (Is 58:6-7). “Render true judgment, be kind and merciful to each other. Do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the alien or the poor, do not plot evil in your heart against one another” (Zec 7:9-10).
True fasting always flows into gestures of love to the brother and sister. The leftover food should not be put back in the cupboard and kept for the next day; it must immediately be distributed to the hungry.
The Shepherd of Hermas—a widely read book by the second-century Christians—explains the link between fasting and charity: “This is how you will have to fast: during the fasting day you will eat only bread and water; then you will calculate how much you would have spent on your food during the day and you will offer this money to a widow, an orphan or a poor person; so you deprive yourself of something so that your sacrifice will serve to satiate someone. He will pray for you to the Lord. If you will fast in this way, your sacrifice will be acceptable to God.”
Leo the Great—Pope 440-461—in a sermon to Christians in Rome recommended: “We will prescribe fasting, remembering not only the necessity of abstinence but also the works of mercy. In this way, what you will have saved on the ordinary expenses becomes food for the poor.”
This fast always gets its “reward”: detaches the heart from the goods of this world, makes one forget his own interests, creates love and sharing, puts oneself in the Kingdom of God.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading