Commentary on the Readings
Ash Wednesday – Year C
Lent: a time of fasting to feed ourselves on the Word
“Man lives not on bread alone but all that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Dt 8:3). With these words from Deuteronomy, Jesus rejects the proposal of the evil one that suggests to pawn all his energies and capabilities to produce bread.
Man needs food but, just when he is filled and his material needs are satisfied, he realizes that within him there are deeper concerns.
It is a dramatic illusion to think that it is possible to appease the need of the infinite and of the eternal by falling back on the reality of this world: beauty fades, “youth and dark hair will not last” (Ecl 11:10); the goods of this world promise lasting paradise on earth, but then the time comes when they are seized. We know that it will end, even though it seems natural to continue to rely on ephemeral realities for the realization of our lives.
When we become aware of the precariousness of this world and we wonder about the meaning of our existence, when we enter into dialogue with the Lord, that’s when we make the qualitative leap that makes us real people.
For Muslims, fairly or not, one who does not raise his eyes to heaven, who does not establish an intimate relationship with God is not a person.
The search for food and shelter, the instinctive drive to extend our species, the thirst for pleasure, are “appetites” we have in common with animals.
Only when we experience the intimate need for another food, the specific of human being is manifested in us.
Aware 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 go into ourselves, to nourish and let grow the divine in us.
It is the time to hear the word of God. Not a superficial, distracted hearing, almost afraid that the message penetrates too profoundly in the mind and heart, provoking embarrassment and demanding radical change of direction in our lives.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Your word, Lord, is food for the life you’ve given me.”
One of the most dreaded calamities by the ancients was plague of locusts. Driven by the scorching desert wind they came in swarms, leaving no trace of vegetation wherever they rested.
At the beginning of his book, the prophet Joel describes dramatically this scourge that has hit his country: “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, the earth mourns… Grieve, O you farmers; for the harvest of the field has perished” (Jl 1:7-11).
The biblical passage that introduces us into the Lenten season is placed in this context.
Why—the Israelites ask—are we afflicted by such misfortune? Is it a punishment? A reprisal of God, resentful because we have forgotten him?
Misfortunes—and the plague of locusts is one of them—are painful events that occur, but they are never sent by God.
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 misfortune that has struck them as an invitation to conversion.
The land—he says—has been invaded by locusts because you have taken refuge in the goods of this world. Welfare, prosperity, abundance, wealth, have laid a fatal trap for your faith.
Before introducing the people into the Promised Land, Moses has put them on guard against the dangerous temptation: “And when you have eaten and have been satisfied, when you have built 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” (Dt 8:12-14).
Joel calls on Israel to recognize that material goods have made them lose their heads. They had reached the point of not thinking about anything other than be fine, rich, enjoy the luxury and given to the good life.
The misfortune of locusts has shown them how fleeting was the wealth they trusted and how they can disappear at any moment.
Grain, wine and oil are precious but woe to him who makes them the sole purpose of existence.
Israel’s experience is also a lesson for us, so often seduced by promises of complete happiness touting the goods of this world.
When we fall back on material things, considering them as an absolute, we always end up alone, disillusioned, in a condition of death. Our companions are crying, wailing and bitterness of sin.
What to do?
The heartfelt invitation that the Lord, by the mouth of his prophet, directed to the Israelites is valid also for us: “Return to me with your whole heart” (v. 12).
Lent is the time of return to the Father’s house. We return home only when we are sure to be welcomed by someone who loves us.
If we remain stubbornly clinging to the image of God we are familiar with because it falls into our schemes, that of the Almighty who maintains a distance, establishes orders and prohibitions and demands respect, that of a God always ready to punish, we will not willingly turn to him.
The first Lenten conversion to do, the most urgent and indispensable, is the correction of the image of God with which we are familiar, created by our mind and not from the word of God.
The God of the Bible is not one who repays with penalties (you hurt yourself… And I will terminate you!), but he recovers, heals the wounds of man’s sin.
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 is not enough to know that God loves us, waits for us and will fill us with good. He will not reproach or punish us for our mistakes. We need to have the courage to decide to take the way back to him.
Along the way that leads to the Lord we are reminded that we will encounter difficulties. There will be sacrifices, painful breakups, radical choices to make. So Lent is also a time of austerity, training to renouncement, deprivation, stripping from all that make our journey heavy and slow.
The approach to God will be accompanied—Joel in fact explains—“by rending the heart, fasting, weeping, mourning” (v. 12).
Notwithstanding, we are not alone on the road to conversion. Beside us we find so many brothers and sisters walking the same path, encouraging us with their words and example, joining us at the “solemn assembly” (vv. 15-16), and with the Lord’s ministers, they ask with us to God, “Spare your people Lord” (v. 17).
The reading does not carry God’s answer to the prayers of the people but the prophecy of Joel 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, may-bugs, crickets and locusts… You will eat and be satisfied and you will praise the Lord your God, who has done wonders for you” (Jl 2:21,24-26).
Sin has destroyed our lives, has left us dry and skeletal like the trees of the field devoured by locusts. Sin will not have the last word but the merciful love of God. He will transform our 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 meet him.
In the first reading, the invitation to conversion—which is the central theme of Lent—comes with these words: “Return to the Lord wholeheartedly” (Jl 2:12).
For Joel, conversion is a way to go backwards. Who has entered the not good trails, is invited to backtrack. Who has traveled the path that leads to the temple of idols—which for us are money, success, pleasure at all costs—must abandon them and “return” to God.
In the second reading, Paul takes up the same theme but with another image; he speaks of reconciliation.
His exhortation is also heartfelt: “Let God reconcile you!” He sees sin as a disagreement, a state of enmity, a distortion of the relationship between God and man.
This hostility must be overcome; it is necessary to restore harmony. The image of reconciliation is suggested by Paul from the painful experience with the Christians of Corinth to whom he is writing. Some months earlier, the Corinthians had seriously offended him, to the point of expelling him from the community.
It was not a banal misunderstanding, disagreement caused by futile reasons. It was the same Gospel message—announced by Christ by the mouth of Paul—which was questioned and rejected.
Here is the reason why the apostle admonishes them: “We present ourselves as ambassador in the name of Christ, as if God himself makes an appeal to you” (v. 20). You cannot be reconciled to God without agreeing with his apostles, to those who are his heralds.
Here we have a valuable indication for our Lenten journey. Reconciliation with God is not done by purificatory rites and ascetic practices, but through adherence to the message transmitted to us by God’s ambassadors—heralds of his word (cf. Rom 10:14.17).
In the last part of the reading (6:1-2), paraphrasing a passage of Isaiah (cf. Is 49:8) Paul appeals to the urgency of reconciliation with God: “At the favorable time I listened to you, on the day of salvation I helped you” (6.2).
Lent is an opportunity offered to us to rectify today, without delay, our relationship with the Lord.
The need to feel esteemed and valued has been put into our hearts by the good God and is a precious encouragement to actively take our place within the community.
Exclusion, lack of recognition, indifference are perceived as a condemnation to marginalization. If others do not consider us, we feel like nobodies; it is as if we would not exist.
Of legitimate joy that the approval of people communicates to us, we can fall into the idolatry of one’s own image: a desperate search for visibility at all costs, to the point of becoming slaves to what people say and to live according to appearance and display.
The first words that Jesus directs us at the beginning of Lent are to warn us against the danger of acting out of vainglory (v. 1).
If we should not seek the admiration of people, what must be, then, the objective of our actions?
The reward. In today’s passage Jesus stresses, up to seven times the reward reserved for those who behave according to his teachings. The idea of the reward was one of the pillars of Pharisaical religiosity: the pious 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, meanwhile, “borrows” and will pay for his sins in this or another life.
This was a theological conviction based on Old Testament texts and shared by all. Rabbi Akiba—one of the most famous rabbis—at the beginning of the second century A.C. explained thus to his disciples: “When I see my master’s wine becomes non-acidic; his linen not tangled, his oil does not rot, his honey is not stale, I’m sad because he’s getting all the rewards of his good deeds in this world. But when I see him in pain, I’m glad because he is saving the goods that will be delivered to him in the future world.”
Is Jesus speaking of reward in this sense?
In the Gospel the “reward” reserved for the righteous and the “punishment” that will befall the wicked are often referred to: “Know that the Son of Man will come in the glory of his Father with the holy angels, and he will reward each one according to his deeds” (Mt 16:27), and invites “to store up treasures for yourself with God, where no moth or rust can destroy, nor thief come and steal it” (Mt 6:20).
At first glance, this form of reward is agreeable to us. It is in perfect harmony with our understanding of “justice” but is it consistent with the gospel?
Jesus taught us to give our lives freely and disinterestedly. Does it make sense, then, to act in view of a reward? To do good to accumulate merit, is it not perhaps a selfish calculation? Does the religion of merit not reduce God to an administrator?
The reward to which Jesus refers to is not a better and higher place in paradise, but increased capacity to love, more intimate union, the sharper likeness with the Father’s face.
The “reward” is the joy of loving in a free way, as God does; it’s the belongingness, even now, to his “Kingdom”.
People can become God’s children as newborns (cf. 1 Pt 2:1-2) or those who have already come a long way toward the unattainable goal which is the perfection of the Father in heaven (cf. Mt 5:48 ).
To progress in this maturity, the Gospel proposes, at the beginning of Lent, three ascetic practices: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. They constitute the pillars of Jewish spirituality that Jesus presented from a new perspective, his own.
The first: almsgiving.
In Jesus’ day, there were in every village in Israel people responsible for collecting and distributing aid to the poor, orphans, widows and strangers.
This charitable institution had undeniable merits, however, for many, it was often transformed into an occasion of showing off.
It was customary to praise publicly, during the liturgical celebration on Saturday, who had contributed a generous donation. He was invited to stand in the midst of the assembly. He was presented as an example to all and was accompanied to the post of honor, along with the rabbis.
Jesus has often witnessed, and certainly with deep displeasure, this show and, in fact, he has described as “hypocrites” (actors) those who were willing to act in such a comedy.
He was not angry but felt sad because, for a moment of pride, these people—also very good—failed to take advantage of the precious opportunity to do good without being noticed, just as God does who hides to the point of making one doubt his existence.
Rather than “almsgiving”, we now speak of solidarity, sharing, attention to the needs of others.
The term “almsgiving” sounds a bit archaic, but must be preserved because its meaning is very beautiful. It is derived from a Greek root verb meaning to be moved, to have mercy, to speak in favor of someone who is in need because he feels emotionally involved in his problem. If we dig a little deeper into the meaning of the “almsgiving”, we must bear in mind that in the Hebrew language there is no term to define it. It’s simply called tzedakah—justice.
Yes, for a Hebrew—and thus also for Jesus—to give alms is not to drop a few cents into the hands of the needy, but to restore justice, to recognize that the goods of this world do not belong to man but to God. Who has more than he needs must deliver them to those the Father has destined to receive them. It is a lie to speak of mine, of yours, of his and also of ours because “the earth and its fullness belong to the Lord, the world and all that dwell in it” (Ps 24:1).
People are only invited guests to his banquet. That is why Jesus urges his disciples to practice justice in secret, “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (vv. 3-4.).
Self-complacency is misplaced and the beneficiary must not be embarrassed or feel indebted to the one who has done good to him because the giver has only delivered what belongs to the Father in heaven.
The Fathers of the Church had understood this truth well. To quote one among many, Saint Ambrose, who said to the rich: “Remember that you do not give of yours to the poor, but you give back only what is due to him.”
The second Lenten practice: prayer.
Today it is in crisis, not by the ill will of the faithful, but because it is not easy to understand its value and how to do it.
How to pray during Lent? Repeating often the prayers that we have learned?
Jesus recommends 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 apply for his intervention if he already desires the good of man? Can our prayer force him to change his plans?
In Jesus’ time—as also today—there were two kinds of prayer, public and private.
Public prayer was made in the temple, in the synagogues and on the streets, twice a day. At nine o’clock in the morning and at three o’clock in the afternoon, while sacrifice was offered in the temple. Every pious Jew, wherever he was, turned toward Jerusalem and spiritually united himself to the rite that was being held there.
Jesus does not condemn this practice to which he too remained faithful. However, he warns against the danger of “losing the reward”, that is, to destroy it, making it ineffective, with ostentation.
Then he stops on the other kind of prayer, that private one, which is 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 nor a list of demands. It is a dialogue with God, not to convince him to do our will and to realize our dreams, but to be introduced in his thoughts, to internalize his designs and receive from him the strength to do the job that we have been assigned to build of his Kingdom.
Prayer is, above all, listening, opening of hearts to receive God’s plans and not to defeat his expectations. It is a time consuming and requires environments that promote concentration, meditation and contemplation.
Jesus knew how to pray and knew also to choose the right 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” (cf. Lk 5:16); “Jesus went out into the hills to pray, spending the whole night in prayer with God” (Lk 6:12).
This type of prayer always gets “its reward” because it keeps the thoughts and actions of man in harmony with God’s.
The third practice: fasting.
Fasting exists in every religion as an expression of mourning and pain and is often accompanied by gestures such as the renunciation of the care of the body, sleeping on the ground, sprinkling oneself with dust and ashes, dressing in sackcloth.
In Jesus time, fasting was considered highly commendable. It served to atone for the sins, to arouse God’s mercy, to avert his punishments, to avoid calamities. In Israel it had acquired such importance so much so that in the Roman Empire the saying circulated: “To fast as a Jew.” The most devout and pious reached to completely abstain from food from dawn to dusk, twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays (cf. Lk 18:12); each teacher gave specific provisions on this point.
This being so, the little relief given to fasting in the New Testament surprises. Paul never stresses fasting in his letters and Jesus does this only on two occasions: first, to justify his disciples who do not practice it (cf. Mt 9:14); the other- mentioned in today’s gospel, to indicate the provisions that characterize the real fast.
The Christian community is aware of having the bridegroom with them “always, even to the end of the world” (Mt 28:20), therefore they do not fast “as the hypocrites who disfigure the face” (v. 16). Fasting for the disciple has a completely different meaning: it is not an expression of grief or pain but with joy by the presence in the world of the kingdom of God.
The Christian fasts “perfuming the head and washing the body.” He does not show any effort; he does not want his sacrifice noted. He is happy knowing that with his renunciation, he can see the joy of the poor to whom he has given help.
This fast stands out and differs from that of the Pharisees and places itself in the line of the prophets who had strongly condemned false fasting.
Enough!—the prophets have said—with calling fast and an acceptable day to the Lord “bowing down one’s head, and making use of sackcloth and ashes, oppressing the laborers, ending up in quarreling, striking each other with wicked blows” (Is 58:3-5).
This is the fast pleasing to God: breaking the fetters of injustice, and unfastening the thongs of the yoke and setting the oppressed free and breaking every yoke.
This is the fasting pleasing to the Lord: “sharing your food 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” (Zech 7:9-10).
True fasting always produces acts of love of neighbor. Leftovers are not stored in the cupboard for the next day; it must be distributed immediately to the hungry.
Pastor Hermas—a book widely read by the Christians of the second century—explains the relationship between fasting and charity: “Here’s how you practice fasting: during the day of fasting you will eat only bread and water; then you will calculate how much you would have spent for your food on that day and you offer the money to a widow, an orphan or a poor person; thus you you deprive yourself of something, so that your sacrifice will serve to sate others. He will pray for you to the Lord. If you fast in this way, your sacrifice will be pleasing to God.”
Pope Leo the Great—who led the Church from the year 440 to 461—in a homily to the Christians in Rome recommended: “We prescribe fasting reminding you not only the need for abstinence, but also to do works of mercy. In this manner, what you have saved on the ordinary expenses is transformed in nourishment for the poor.”
This fast always gets its “reward”: it detaches the heart from the goods of this world; it makes one forget his own interest, creates love and sharing and places one in the Kingdom of God.