Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Sound the shofar! Proclaim a fast! Call an assembly! Gather the people together.

In Jesus' time, there were two major periods of penance: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, marked the end of ten days of repentance before Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the New Year; Tisha b'Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, commemorates the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, and the beginning of the Babylon captivity.  Once a month, there was also a day of penance, and once a week, the day before the Sabbah.  Whenver the ancient Hebrews did penance, they wept, they fasted, they lamented.  They also tore their garments as a sign of their contrition and their repentance.

In today's First Reading, from Joel, the LORD says:  "Come back to me with all your heart. Don't tear your garments, but rend your heart, and turn back to the LORD your God.  For the LORD your God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness.  Even now, He might turn and repent, and leave a blessing.

Sound the shofar, the ram's horn.  Proclaim a fast; call a solemn assembly.  Gather the people together, from the elders to the children and the infants still nursing at the breast.  Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her bedchamber.  Let the priests, ministers of the LORD, weep before the altar and say, "Spare your people, O LORD; do not make your inheritance a reproach! Do not allow the gentiles to rule over them.  Why should the nations say, 'Where is their God?'"

The LORD was moved with compassion for his land; and he had mercy on his people.

Today's gospel could be divided into two colums:  IN SECRET, and TO BE SEEN.

Whenever you give alms, don't make a show of it, as the hypocrites do, so that people will praise them.  I tell you, they already have their reward.  Instead, give your alms in secret, so that even your left hand doesn't know what your right hand is doing. 

When you pray, don't stand on the street corners and in places of worship as the hypocrites do, so that people will take notice of them. They already have their reward.  When you pray, go to your room, close the door, and pray to the Father in secret; and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you. 

When you fast, don't look gloomy, as the hypocrites do, who smear ashes on their foreheads so that people will know that they're fasting.  They also have their reward.  When you fast, wash your face, and anoint your head with perfumed oils, so that no one can see that you are fasting, but only your Father, who is in secret; and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.

This gospel reminds us that whatever we do, whether giving alms, saying prayers, fasting or performing other works of penance, it must be done not as a response to God's love, not to gain God's favor, much less to impress others of our piety -- a truly hypocritical attitude.  Good deeds ought to reflect the relationship that exists between me and God, between a child and a loving Father.  Or else, especially in this penitential season, between that Father's only-begotten Son, who endured betrayals, sufferings, trials, and even death on a cross, so that we, his younger brothers and sisters, might share in his heavenly life.   During this Lenten season, invite Jesus into your own pain and suffering, your trials, your betrayals, as well as your joys.  Ask for the grace to feel shame and remorse because of your own brokenness, and that of the whole world, but in the same breath, ask for the grace of gratitude and thanksgiving for His redeeming and healing grace.

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