In our Ash Wednesday Gospel reading (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21), Jesus prescribes almsgiving, prayer and fasting as our spiritual disciplines for the season of Lent.
When you give to the needy … when you pray … when you fast. Jesus seems to assume that we will do these things, but He wants to make sure our motivations are right. In each case, He strongly emphasizes that we are not to do them in order to show others how good and religious we are. That kind of pride and boasting is totally at odds with the spirit and purpose of Lent - and the example of humility that Jesus Himself gives us.
The Prophet Joel says much the same thing in different words: Rend your heart and not your garments (Joel 2:13). In biblical times, tearing one’s clothes was a public display of penitence and mourning. Jesus wants a deeper repentance of the heart. And the three disciplines of almsgiving, prayer and fasting can be aids to true repentance if done in the right spirit.
Repentance means turning back to God, recognizing that we have strayed from His ways, that we are not self-sufficient, but utterly dependent on God. To repent is to recognize that your life is not your own. You have been bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:20). And that price was the very death of God’s only Son Jesus Christ. That’s what it cost for God to seek out our wayward humanity and bring us back to Him, to reconcile us to Himself. So in the words of St. Paul, use this season of Lent to be reconciled to God. For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:20-21)
Knowing that we are already reconciled and made right with God through Christ, in almsgiving, prayer and fasting we are joined to Jesus more closely.
Almsgiving, prayer and fasting - three spiritual disciplines that join us more closely to Jesus. Throughout His earthly ministry of compassion, Jesus constantly gave of Himself to those in need (thus He is the ultimate almsgiver - 'alms' literally means 'compassion'). He constantly prayed to the Father. And He fasted 40 days and 40 nights as training for His ministry. That's why we observe this 40-day period of Lent - as a training regimen for our own discipleship.
While these three disciplines are important - and I would say, essential to the life of Christian discipleship - they are not ends in themselves. In the words of the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann from his classic book Great Lent, the purpose of Lent is not to force on us a few formal obligations in these areas, but rather to soften our hearts so that we may be open to the work of the Spirit within us. And the work of the Spirit is to conform us to Christ, to make us more like Jesus, for in Him we become the righteousness of God.