Done in Secret…

On the Gospel of Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

Ash Wednesday

To have our good actions praised is not a bad thing, it can be encouraging to have our hard work, our generosity, our commitment praised. But we humans are weak creatures, and if we come to depend on praise and recognition, we can very quickly act with only this motive in mind. The winning of approval can become our sole motivation, rather than working for the glory of God. Today’s Gospel reminds us that the opinion of our neighbours matters little, but that all our life is lived in the gaze of the Father, and it is this loving gaze that we should seek to return by almsgiving, prayer and fasting this Lent.

There is something beautiful about secretly doing good. In contemporary pop culture, reference is often made to ‘random acts of kindness’, good actions done spontaneously, with no expectation of reward. This is the ‘economy of the gift’ which Christians are called to be a part of: ‘when you give alms, your left hand must not know what your right is doing; your almsgiving must be secret, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you’.

Similarly, there is something beautiful about prayer in secret. There is a time for public prayer, but today’s Gospel reminds us that there is a time also for entering into the ‘cell of self-knowledge’ (St Catherine of Siena), for shutting the door, and spending time with God alone: ‘pray to your Father who is in that secret place’. This secret prayer is what lends integrity to all other forms of prayer, and without it, our formal prayer (e.g. participation in the Mass) can become dry and dessicated.

Finally, fasting should not simply provide an opportunity to groan and complain. The Book of Sirach encourages us to ‘add a smiling face to all your gifts, and be cheerful as you dedicate your tithes’ (Sir 35:8). The act of fasting is no great offering to God – simply reducing our food intake is hardly of use to him. But fasting can become an offering worthy of God when it is offered as a love-gift, with a smiling face.

Mother Teresa was fond of reminding us that the best we can do is to do ‘’ little things with great love’. This Lent, let that be our guiding principle: to carry out little acts of almsgiving and fasting, in a spirit of prayer, and with great love for our loving Father, who sees what is done in secret.

 

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

– Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

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