The word “secret” in relation to religious practices appears so many times in the gospels that we are led to suspect that Jesus was really trying to stress a very important point to his disciples.
In the gospel reading for today's Mass, the word “secret” appears four times, the word “hidden” appears twice, but the idea of keeping our good deeds from the eyes of others appears no less than thirteen times. Thirteen times in a relatively short reading!
It makes you think twice, especially on a day when you can tell who the Catholics are by simply looking at their foreheads. I know. When I entered the classroom at the college where I was teaching at a couple years ago, one of my students was standing there to greet me, the first thing he did was to look at my forehead with this puzzled look. “Father you have dirt…” but before he could even finish his sentence, he says, “Oh, right…Ash Wednesday. I guess I’ll be getting mine later today”.
But why all the admonition to secrecy? Did Jesus not also say that we should let our light shine for others to see? One doesn’t light a lamp only to put it under a bushel basket, he also says. And isn’t it good to let others see the good we do so they can perhaps be influenced to do the same? Why then does he seem to be insisting on so much secrecy in today's gospel?
It's certainly true that the world must know of our faith and our commitment to doing good deeds. We must not hide the fact that we are followers of Christ, Christians, Catholics. There is something to be said about letting the world know we’re “Catholics”. And there’s nothing wrong with being proud of it either.
But what Jesus was really warning against in today’s gospel, was not so much the external manifestations of faith, but the internal dispositions that lead to them. What he was warning against are external acts that are inconsistent with our internal motives. Is the person we are on the outside consistent with the person we are on the inside? Or are they two different things? Worse, are there two contradictory selves in us: one good, the other not.
This was in fact, what the Pharisees were like. What people saw was different from what they really were—and so the religious practices they did were also different from the true inclinations of their hearts.
One’s internal motives and intentions make all the difference. Why does one give alms? Is it to truly assist the poor? Then that is a worthwhile expression of faith. Or is it to call attention to one’s generosity? Then it doesn’t mean much in God’s eyes.
Why does one come to church more during Lent? Is it to renew one’s heart and soul and recommit oneself to God, or is it simply because it’s a practice one does every year? Why does one have ashes placed on his forehead? Is it to remind him that—life isn’t forever and God’s invitation to transform our lives is short? Or is it because it’s Ash Wednesday, and that’s simply what we Catholics do?
For Jesus, it is what lies deep in our heart that’s of the greatest importance. The externals only matter because of what goes on inside us. Who we are on the outside has to be consistent with what we are on the inside.
Ash Wednesday begins the great season of Lent, when we are invited—as the first reading says—to “rend our hearts and not our garments” and to “offer to God a sacrifice of a humble and contrite spirit”. As we enter into the spirit of this Lenten season, it’s good to be reminded of the truthfulness and honesty that Jesus asks of us.
“Lord, make me true, to God, to others, and most especially, to myself”.