My dear people of St. Mary’s:
Recently, I read a number of articles in the secular media about Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent, which attempted to explain our religious practices to an increasingly secular and religiously uninformed society. One piece detailed various accounts of people approaching strangers on Ash Wednesday, to helpfully inform them they had dirt on their foreheads. How you can be an adult living in the United States of America in the 21st Century and have never even heard of Ash Wednesday? Shortly afterwards, I received an e-mail from a parishioner with a question about Lent. He wrote: “I would like to know why, if you are fasting, you are not supposed to show it to receive any points with other people; so, [then] why do all the items that were donated to the church have the names of the people who donated it to the church.”
His question hits on something that is often misunderstood by Catholics and non-Catholics alike about when we are to do spiritual things in public and when we are to do them in private. His question likely references the Gospel account where Jesus says: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them … When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you … When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them … When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites … And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.” [Mt 6:1-6]
It would seem, when we read this passage, that every spiritual thing we do should be done privately and anonymously, or it will be displeasing to God. But, this shows the danger of pulling one passage out of its context in Scripture and, without properly understanding it, making a broad rule from it. If we were to do that with this text, it might seem that Jesus is condemning the practice of our receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday, because they are meant to be seen by others. But this is clearly not the case, since the Church actually chooses to read this Gospel passage every year at the Mass on Ash Wednesday itself!
First, a little background. Ashes were a well-known religious symbol in the Old Testament. The books of Genesis, 2 Samuel, Esther, Job, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Jonah, and 1 Maccabees, all speak of the Jewish custom of ashes used as a public sign of penance, grief or mourning. In the Old Testament there were also public days of penance that would be observed collectively by all the people, like the great Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, which is still observed by Jewish people to this day.celebrated many of these holy days publically with His family, and later with His Apostles.
What our Lord was speaking of in the sixth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel was a criticism of the Jewish religious leaders of His day who were making a public show of their practice of religion, though their hearts were actually far from God. Jesus wants everything we do as part of our spiritual lives to be from a genuine love of God and not from a sense of pride, or to impress other people. And, it is true that sometimes people may do things with mixed motives. Jesus’ injunction is meant to put us on guard about this human tendency, so that we root it out when we see it manifest itself in our spiritual lives.
However, the Church has never understood this to mean that we cannot do public religious things. We are required to come together on Sundays for Mass and to worship together. Public feast days or days of penance and fasting are called for by the church in order to unite everyone together in prayer. Ash Wednesday is meant to be a public reminder to all of the beginning of this holy season, of our sinfulness and need for repentance, and of our mortality, that “to dust we shall return.” This enable us as a Catholic people to collectively begin the season of Lent, where we then are expected to continue our particular practices, privately.
Therefore, the same is true about memorials in churches. Weekly donations are the ones that are made privately. However, from time to time, when there is a major renovation to a church, people will be asked to give special gifts, which are generally memorialized to deceased loved ones or to families as a whole. The names which are inscribed (without any ostentation in our church) are there to remind people to pray for the benefactors of St. Mary’s. Rather than being there to impress, the presence of those names is a request for us to remember them in our prayers. Certainly, it is true that it is never good for donations to be done merely to impress other people. In my experience this is rarely the case. People make donations because they love their church, and they are grateful for the graces they have received from God through her. Such parishioners want to insure that future generations are able to encounter God in their church, in the same way that they have. So, let us pray for our benefactors, living and deceased, who have given us our beautiful St. Mary’s!