(Delivered at the 3 pm Ash Wednesday service at Immaculate Conception in New Orleans–my future assignment after ordination. This stained glass window at Immaculate Conception is of St. Joseph’s death)
Matthew’s gospel today, warns us to pray in private, to give alms in private, to fast in private. It’s very ironic then that we are gathered here today in a public place of worship to get our foreheads marked with ashes for all the world to see. It seems that Matthew doesn’t want us showing the world that we are fasting, praying, giving alms, yet we will leave here today with ashes on our foreheads, for all of New Orleans to see.
What are we to make of this admonition to pray, fast, and give alms in private?
Lent is a time to grow closer to the Lord Jesus. It’s a time for deepening our prayer, intensifying our support of the the body of Christ, and growing closer to the Jesus who hears all of our prayers.
We will grow closer to the Lord by praying the most intimate, deep down prayers that we have. These prayers that we share with the Lord in privacy tend to be the prayers that are closest to our hearts. We are not tempted to shout these prayers out on the street corner because they are prayers between ourselves and God. These are our most intimate prayers, and this sharing of our most intimate prayer with God will bring us closer to our Lord Jesus.
It’s like with any close friend we have, when we trust this person with most intimate fears, hopes, dreams, and weaknesses, we will grow closer to that person. The same thing happens with Jesus when we share these intimate private prayers with him in the security of our own private room. What are your deepest, most intimate concerns? What keeps you up at night or worried during the day? Bring them today in the privacy of your own heart here before the Lord.
But we are not in a private place right now. We are sitting in a public place of worship. Perhaps we take this chance to learn a little bit about the Church as the people of God. The Church, as a group of people in Christ, is the place where we can safely share these intimate prayers. This is what Church means for us today–a place where we come together as God’s people willing to bring our private prayers together and place them before each other and the Lord. It’s a tremendous act of trust to belong to such a body as this Church. We all come to this place because we will not be judged on the basis of our most secret and most profound prayer. We trust that all here have such prayers, and we draw strength from the courage of one another to be here in public, praying to God with our most private affairs.
And so we come together today, though we are signed outwardly with marks of ashes, with our hearts are full of the prayers that are most important to us. We come together as the body of Christ trusting in one another and in the Lord as we make our Lenten journey following Christ.
Jeff Johnson, S.J.