Thursday, February 26, 2009

Ash Wednesday - Ian Boxall

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. … But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret ...” (Mt 6:16-18).

So says the Lord in today’s Gospel. Yet in a few moments time, we shall be queuing up to disfigure our faces. We shall probably look solemn, if not exactly dismal, as we are reminded of our origin in the dust. And we shall be discouraged from washing our faces afterwards – still less anointing our heads with oil – so as to hide what we are doing from other people. Nor have we come to a secret place in order to do this, but to a very public place, in the company of other people. Indeed, in my experience of previous Ash Wednesday evenings, many people will head out from this Mass onto the Cowley Road, so that Tesco will be full of shoppers walking round very publicly with smudges of grey ash on their foreheads.

In short, what we are doing this evening seems to be in blatant disregard for Our Lord’s words in today’s Gospel.

But let’s look carefully at those words of Jesus. They are part of a much larger warning to the disciples about the dangers inherent in three religious practices, all of which are integral to the Christian keeping of Lent: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. The basic question posed by Matthew is not whether Christians should fast, or pray, or give alms. Rather it is this: what distinguishes the followers of Jesus from the followers of the Pharisees on the one hand, and the religious observances of the Gentiles on the other? How are we to distinguish authentic prayer, authentic alms-giving, or authentic fasting from their misdirected alternatives?

So let’s return to fasting, and the contrast which Jesus sets up. On the one side are the ‘hypocrites’, who look dismal, and disfigure their faces. The warning is made all the more vivid by the exaggerated terms in which it is presented. The hypocrites are frankly made to look ridiculous. They strut around in a pompous manner, blowing loud trumpets, and blocking the traffic on street corners. When it comes to fasting, they pour ashes on their heads as if they were lamenting a national disaster rather than engaged in a modest act of personal piety. Moreover, the very word ‘hypocrite’, hupokritēs, suggests that they are little more than actors, wearing masks to obscure their true identity. Indeed, we might plausibly translate Matthew’s words, not as ‘they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting’, but ‘they disfigure their faces so as to appear to others that they are fasting’. They are only playing at it, and the warning to hearers of Matthew’s Gospel is that we can just as easily succumb to the same pretence.

On the other side are those who listen attentively to the words of Jesus, who put oil on their head as a sign of joy, and wash their heads, and perform their fasting ‘in secret’, in hiddenness, in their inmost selves, where their heavenly Father sees. What the hypocrites with their ridiculous masks have failed to see is that the practice of fasting is about replacing pretence with reality. It means going into the secret, hidden place which our heavenly Father sees. It involves stripping away those things, even good things, with which we normally surround ourselves and which we convince ourselves that we can’t live without. It means confronting those desires which can threaten to enslave us, rather than pretending that they don’t really exist or can’t do us harm. And as that stripping away happens and the battle-lines are drawn, fasting heightens our awareness of our utter dependence on God.

But if authentic fasting makes us aware of our total dependence upon God, then it also opens us outwards to our fellow human beings. Fasting is not a performance to be seen by others, but an act of mercy which reaches out to others. As St Peter Chrysologus puts it:

Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others, you open God’s ear to yourself (Sermo 43: cited in 2009 Lenten Message of Benedict XVI).

In other words, when we fast we are acknowledging the integral connection between the inside and the outside, between the internal discipline of fasting and its outward expression in sacrificial living. It is precisely this relationship between the inside and the outside which the prophet Isaiah speaks about: “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high … Is not this the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs to the yoke … Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house?” (Isa. 58:3b-7).

So what we have come to do today is not to disfigure our faces like the hypocrites, so as to be seen by others. Rather, the purpose of that ash on our foreheads is to act as a warning precisely against this kind of hypocrisy. It reminds us of our human fragility, our utter dependence upon God without whom we are but dust. It reminds us of the integral connection between the inside and the outside, an external sign of an inner disposition. And it is crucial that this mark we receive is the mark of the cross: as a vivid reminder that our prayer and fasting and almsgiving are to point others, not to ourselves, but to Christ.