Commentary: Ash Wednesday

Historical background for Ash Wednesday
Collect
Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting
this campaign of Christian service,
so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils,
we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

The Collect provides an image of troops mustering for battle: “battle,” “weapons,” “armed,” all these have clear military connotations. But also “campaign for Christian service” if we look at the Latin text: praesidia miltiae Christianae. The service or action (praesidia) is one of Christian battle or militancy (militiae). This refers to the Church Militant—the Church here on earth—waging war against sin and the kingdom of darkness. Thus the opening prayer on Ash Wednesday announced and summoned us to a battle that is engaged by the Church with special intensity during Lent. ~ Msgr. Pope

First Reading: Joel 2:12–18

“Already the Old Covenant directed the people into a general period of “conversion” and atonement. Here too penance and fasting should be undertaken not as external actions but as an inner attitude: “Rend your hearts and not your garments.” … Here too there is a common liturgical activity: “Holy fasting” is viewed as the entire congregation’s worshipful service to God. Here too we find no magical attempt to manipulate God but rather a simple, intense prayer for divine compassion” ~ Balthasar, LW, 52

Psalm: Psalm 51:3–6ab, 12–14, 17

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20–6:2

“The call to conversion and to a time of repentance issues from the Church in this second reading, whose spokesman is Paul, together with his collaborators. This has a dual meaning: Be reconciled to God both personally, each of you, and through us, the representatives of the Church… Though we are free to repent whenever we will, obedience to the Church means that we do it now, within the framework of the liturgical year. The motivation the Church gives us is the action of God himself, who made his sinless Son “to be sin, so that in him we might become the very holiness of God.” The enormity of the fact that Christ has on our behalf already taken the most extreme punishment upon himself should move us not to leave him isolated…. Instead of leaving him alone, we should be moved to enter into his suffering for us, doing together with him what little we can do to atone for the world’s sin.” ~ Balthasar, LW, 51

Gospel: Matthew 6:1–6, 16–18
6 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
16 “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. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“In the Gospel, Jesus does not eliminate this repentance, but ultimately shields it from being minimized by self-righteousness: everything must be shifted into the inner and invisible if it is to have meaning and value before God.” ~ Balthasar, LW, 53

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