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Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017
Today’s Scripture Reading | Matthew 6:5–18
“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. 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.
“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
“Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
“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. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 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.” (NRSV)
I have struggled for years with the verses from Matthew’s Gospel that we regularly read on Ash Wednesday. On a day of moving worship, including communion and smudged foreheads, we hear this counsel of Jesus: “Do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others they are fasting.”
For me, the challenge becomes to dig deeper into the text. The only prayerful activity for corporate worship that is addressed in these verses is what we call the Lord’s Prayer. The remaining spiritual practices are both personal and private. What is our purpose when we pray? Is it to make a show of ourselves? Or is it to open ourselves up to our divine conversation partner?
In an increasingly secular world, a smudged forehead signals that we have sought to turn our lives around and turn back to God as the Lenten season begins. What follows throughout the coming days leading up to Holy Week and Easter are opportunities to renew and refresh our personal prayer life.
Some take our Lord literally and find a private space beyond the eyes and ears of others to lift up their prayers. Some of us are walking pray-ers, whether in the pilgrimage of the labyrinth or out in the world. I value the chance, on extended walks, without phone or earbuds, to share prayers of gratitude for the common graces of daily life and to name people and circumstances in deep need of God’s help—yes, with open eyes as I seek to navigate my way through our bustling city.
What is the purpose of our prayers this Lenten season?
Ever-present God, I thank you that you travel with me and all your people through these days of Lent, whether we are seated or walking. Lure us again to turn back to you and continue our prayerful conversations, inspired by Christ, the Lord of life. Amen.
Written by Jeff Doane, Parish Associate for Older Adults
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