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"Lectio divina is an authentic source of Christian spirituality recommended by our Rule. We therefore practice it every day, so that we may develop a deep and genuine love for it, and so that we may grow in the surpassing knowledge of Christ. In this way we shall put into practice the Apostle Paul’s commandment, which is mentioned in our Rule: “Let the sword of the spirit, the Word of God, live abundantly in your mouth and in your hearts; and whatever you must do, do it in the name of the Lord.”

 Carmelite Constitutions (No. 82)

Lectio Divina: Ash Wednesday

Lectio Divina: 
Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Ash Wednesday
The meaning of prayer, almsgiving and fasting
The way to spend the time of Lent well
Matthew 6,1-6,16-18

1. Opening prayer

Lord Jesus, send your Spirit to help us to read the Scriptures with the same mind that you read them to the disciples on the way to Emmaus. In the light of the Word, written in the Bible, you helped them to discover the presence of God in the disturbing events of your sentence and death. Thus, the cross that seemed to be the end of all hope became for them the source of life and of resurrection.

Create in us silence so that we may listen to your voice in Creation and in the Scriptures, in events and in people, above all in the poor and suffering. May your word guide us so that we too, like the two disciples from Emmaus, may experience the force of your resurrection and witness to others that you are alive in our midst as source of fraternity, justice and peace. We ask this of you, Jesus, son of Mary, who revealed to us the Father and sent us your Spirit. Amen.

2. Reading

a) A key to the reading:

The Gospel of Ash Wednesday is taken from the Sermon on the Mount and offers us help to understand the practice of the three works of mercy: prayer, almsgiving and fasting and the way to spend the time of Lent well. The manner of practising these three works has changed over the centuries, according to the culture and customs of people and their state of health. Old people today still remember when there was a strict and compulsory fast of forty days throughout Lent. In spite of changes in the practice of the works of mercy, there still is the human and Christian obligation (i) to share our goods with the poor (almsgiving), (ii) to live in contact with the Creator (prayer) and (iii) to be able to control our urges and desires (fasting). The words of Jesus on which we meditate can give us the necessary creativity to find new forms of living these three practices so important in the life of Christians.

b) A division of the text to assist in the reading:

Matthew 6:1: A general key to the understanding of the teaching that follows

Matthew 6:2: How not to go about almsgiving

Matthew 6:3-4: How to go about almsgiving

Matthew 6:5: How not to pray

Matthew 6:6: How to pray

Matthew 6:16: How not to fast

Matthew 6:17-18: How to fast

c) Text:

'Be careful not to parade your uprightness in public to attract attention; otherwise you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give alms, do not have it trumpeted before you; this is what the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win human admiration. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But 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.

'And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you pray, go to your private room, shut yourself in, and so pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.

'When you are fasting, do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they go about looking unsightly to let people know they are fasting. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you fast, put scent on your head and wash your face, 18 so that no one will know you are fasting except your Father who sees all that is done in secret; and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.

3. A moment of prayerful silence

so that the Word of God may penetrate and enlighten our life.

4. Some questions

to help us in our personal reflection.

a) What touched you or pleased you most in this text?

b) What is the meaning of Jesus’ initial warning?

c) What does Jesus criticise and teach about almsgiving? Make a resume for yourself.

d) What does Jesus criticise and teach about prayer? Make a resume for yourself.

e) What does Jesus criticise and teach about fasting? Make a resume for yourself.

5. For those who wish to go deeper into the theme

a) The context:

Jesus speaks of three things: almsgiving (Mt 6:1-6), prayer (Mt 6:5-15) and fasting (Mt 6:16-18). These were the three works of mercy of the Jews. Jesus criticises the fact that they practise these works to be seen by others (Mt 6:1). He will not allow that the practice of justice and mercy be used as a means to social promotion within the community (Mt 6:2.5.16). In the words of Jesus there comes to light a new kind of relationship with God that is revealed to us. He says: “your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you" (Mt 6:4), “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Mt 6:8), “if you forgive others their failings, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours ” (Mt 6,14). Jesus presents us with a new way of approaching the heart of God. A meditation on his words concerning the works of mercy may help us discover this new way.

b) A commentary on the text:

Matthew 6:1: A general key to an understanding of the teaching that follows

Jesus says: Be careful not to parade your uprightness in public to attract attention; otherwise you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven. The justice referred to by Jesus is the place where God wants us to be. The way there is found in the Law of God. Jesus warns that it is not enough to observe the law so as to be praised by people. Earlier he had said: “For I tell you, if your uprightness does not surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of Heaven" (Mt 5:26). In reading these words we must not think only of the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, but above all of the Pharisee that is dormant in each one of us. Had Joseph, Mary’s spouse, followed the justice of the law of the Pharisees, he would have had to renounce Mary. But he was “just” (Mt 1:19), and already possessed the new justice proclaimed by Jesus. That is why he broke the ancient law and saved Mary’s and Jesus’ lives. The new justice proclaimed by Jesus rests on another foundation, springs from another source. We must build our peace from inside, not in what we do for God, but in what God does for us. This is the general key to an understanding of the teaching of Jesus on the works of mercy. In what follows, Matthew applies this general principle to the practice of almsgiving, prayer and fasting. Didactically, he first expresses what must not be and then immediately teaches what should be.

Matthew 6:2: How not to go about almsgiving

The wrong way of giving alms, then and now, is that of doing it in public so as to be acknowledged and acclaimed by others. We often see on pews of churches the words: “Gift of such-and-such a family”. On television, politicians love to appear as great benefactors of humanity on occasions of inaugurations of public works at the service of the community. Jesus says: Those who act thus have already had their reward.

Matthew 6:3-4: How to go about almsgiving

The correct way of giving alms is this: “Your left hand must not know what your right hand is doing!” In other words, we must give alms in such a way that not even I must feel that I am doing something good that deserves a reward from God and praise from others. Almsgiving is an obligation. It is a way of sharing something that I have with those who have nothing. In a family, what belongs to one belongs to all. Jesus praises the example of the widow who gave of what was needed for herself (Mk 12:44).

Matthew 6:5: How not to pray

Speaking of the wrong way of praying, Jesus mentions some strange practices and customs of his day. When the trumpet sounded for morning, midday and evening prayer, there were those who sought to be in the middle of the road to pray solemnly with arms outstretched so as to be seen by all and thus be considered as pious people. Others took up extravagant poses in the synagogue so as to draw the attention of the community.

Matthew 6:6: How to pray

So as to leave no doubt, Jesus over-emphasises the manner of praying. He says that we must pray in secret, only before God the Father. No one will see you. May be before others you may even seem to be a person who does not pray. This does not matter! Even of Jesus it was said: “He is not God!” That is because Jesus often prayed at night and did not care what others thought. What matters is to have one’s conscience at peace and to know that God is the Father who welcomes me, not because of what I do for God or because of the satisfaction that I seek in the fact that others appreciate me as one who is pious and prays.

Matthew 6:16: How not to fast

Jesus criticises wrong practices concerning fasting. There were those who bore a sad face, did not wash, wore torn clothes, did not comb their hair, so that all could see that they were fasting in a perfect manner.

Matthew 6:17-18: How to fast

Jesus suggests the opposite: When you fast, put scent on your head, wash your face, so that no one may know that you are fasting, only your Father who is in heaven.

As we said earlier, it is a new manner of accessing the heart of God that is opening before our eyes. For our own interior peace, Jesus does not ask what we do for God, but what God does for us. Almsgiving, prayer and fasting are not currency to buy God’s favour, but are our response of gratitude for the love received and experienced.

c) Further information:

i) The broader context of Matthew’s Gospel

Matthew’s Gospel was written for a community of converted Jews who were experiencing a deep crisis of identity in relation to their past. After their conversion to Jesus, they continued to live according to their old traditions and frequented the synagogue, together with their relatives and friends, just as before. But they suffered because of the strong pressure from their Jewish friends who did not accept Jesus as the Messiah. This tension grew after the year 70 AD. When in 66 AD the revolt of the Jews against Rome broke out, two groups refused to take part, the Pharisees and the Jewish Christians. Both groups held that going against Rome had nothing to do with the coming of the Messiah, as some thought. After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70, all the other Jewish groups disappeared. Only the Pharisees and the Jewish Christians remained. Both groups claimed to be the heirs of the promise of the prophets and, thus, the tension grew between brothers, because of the inheritance. The Pharisees reorganised the rest of the people and took an ever-stronger position against the Christians, who ended by being excommunicated from the synagogues. This excommunication rekindled the whole problem of identity. Now the Christians were officially and formally separated from the people of the promise. They could no longer frequent their synagogue, their rabbis. And they asked themselves: Who are the real people of God: they or us? On whose side is God? Is Jesus really the Messiah?

Thus, Matthew writes his Gospel (1) for this group of Christians, as a Gospel of consolation for those who had been excommunicated and persecuted by the Jews; helping them to overcome the trauma of breaking away; (2) as a Gospel of revelation, showing that Jesus is the true Messiah, the new Moses, who fulfils the promises; (3) as a Gospel of the new practice, showing how they must achieve true justice, greater than the justice of the Pharisees.

ii) A key to the Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount is the first of five sermons in Matthew’s Gospel. It describes the conditions that will allow a person to enter the Kingdom of God: the way in, the new reading of the law, the new way of looking at and practising the works of mercy; the new way of living in community. In a word, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus communicates the new way of looking at the things of Life and the Kingdom. The following is a division that serves as a key to reading:

Mt 5:1-16: The way in

Mt 5:1-10: The eight Beatitudes help us to see where the kingdom is already present (Mt among the poor and persecuted) and where it will be soon (Mt among the other six groups).

Mt 5:12-16: Jesus addresses his words of consolation to his disciples and warns: anyone who lives the beatitudes will be persecuted (Mt 5:11-12), but his or her life will have meaning because he/she will be the salt of the earth (Mt 5:13) and the light of the world (Mt 5:14-16).

Mt 5:17-to-6:18: The new relationship with God: A new Justice

Mt 5:17-48: The new justice must be greater than that of the Pharisees

Jesus radicalises the law, that is, he brings it back to its roots, to its main and ultimate purpose which is to serve life, justice, love and truth. The commandments of the law point to a new way of life, avoided by the Pharisees (Mt 5:17-20).

Jesus immediately presents various examples as to how the commandments of the Law of God given to Moses are to be understood: of old it was said, but I say to you (Mt 5:21-48)

Mt 6:1-18: The new justice must not seek reward or merit (This is the Gospel of this Ash Wednesday).

Mt 6:19-34: The new relationship to the goods of this world: a new vision of creation

Jesus comes to grips with the primary needs of life: food, clothing, house and health. This is the part of life that causes most anxiety in people. Jesus teaches how to relate to material goods and to the riches of the world: do not accumulate goods (Mt 6:19-21), do not look at the world with sad eyes (Mt 6:22-23), do not serve God and money at the same time (Mt 6:24), do not worry about food and drink (Mt 6:23-34).

Mt 7:1-29: The new relationship with people: a new life in community

Do not seek the straw in your brother’s eye (Mt 7:1-5); do not cast pearls before swine (Mt 7:6); Do not be afraid of asking for things from God (Mt 7:7-11); observe the golden rule (Mt 7:12); seek the narrow and difficult path (Mt 7:13-14); be wary of false prophets (Mt 7:15-20); do not just talk but do (Mt 7:21-23); the community built on these principles will stand in spite of raging storms (Mt 7:24-27). The outcome of these words is a new awareness in the face of the scribes and doctors (Mt 7:28-29).

6. Prayer in a Psalm: Psalm 40 (39)

Proclaiming the great justice of God

I waited, I waited for Yahweh,
then he stooped to me and heard my cry for help.
He pulled me up from the seething chasm,
from the mud of the mire.
He set my feet on rock,
and made my footsteps firm.
He put a fresh song in my mouth,
praise of our God.
Many will be awestruck at the sight,
and will put their trust in Yahweh.

How blessed are those who put their trust in Yahweh,
who have not sided with rebels
and those who have gone astray in falsehood.
How much you have done, Yahweh, my God
 your wonders, your plans for us -- you have no equal.
I will proclaim and speak of them;
they are beyond number.

You wanted no sacrifice or cereal offering,
but you gave me an open ear,
you did not ask for burnt offering or sacrifice for sin;
then I said, 'Here I am, I am coming.'
In the scroll of the book it is written of me,
my delight is to do your will;
your law, my God, is deep in my heart.

I proclaimed the saving justice of Yahweh in the great assembly.
See, I will not hold my tongue,
as you well know.
I have not kept your saving justice locked in the depths of my heart,
but have spoken of your constancy and saving help.
I have made no secret of your faithful and steadfast love,
in the great assembly.

You, Yahweh, have not withheld your tenderness from me;
your faithful and steadfast love will always guard me.
For troubles surround me,
until they are beyond number;
my sins have overtaken me;
I cannot see my way.
They outnumber the hairs of my head,
and my heart fails me.
Be pleased, Yahweh, to rescue me,

Yahweh, come quickly and help me!
Shame and dismay to all who seek to take my life.
Back with them,
let them be humiliated who delight in my misfortunes.
Let them be aghast with shame,
those who say to me, 'Aha, aha!'
But joy and happiness in you to all who seek you!
Let them ceaselessly cry,
'Great is Yahweh' who love your saving power.
Poor and needy as I am,
the Lord has me in mind.
You, my helper, my Saviour, my God, do not delay.

7. Final Prayer

Lord Jesus, we thank for the word that has enabled us to understand better the will of the Father. May your Spirit enlighten our actions and grant us the strength to practice that which your Word has revealed to us. May we, like Mary, your mother, not only listen to but also practice the Word. You who live and reign with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.

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As Carmelites We live our life of allegiance to Jesus Christ and to serve Him faithfully with a pure heart and a clear conscience through a commitment to seek the face of the living God (the contemplative dimension of life), through prayer, through fraternity, and through service (diakonia). These three fundamental elements of the charism are not distinct and unrelated values, but closely interwoven. 

All of these we live under the protection, inspiration and guidance of Mary, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, whom we honor as "our Mother and sister." 

 



date | by Dr. Radut