St Augustine: An Ash Wednesday Homily on the Gospel (Matt 6:16-21)
Posted by Dim Bulb on February 21, 2012
GOSPEL: Matt 6:16-21~At that time: Jesus said to His disciples: When you fast, be not as the hypocrites, sad. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear to men to fast. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face, that thou appear not to men to fast, but to thy Father, Who is in secret; and thy Father, Who seeth in secret, will repay thee. Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth, where the rust and moth consume, and where thieves break through and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do not break through nor steal. For where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also.
I. By these precepts, as it is evident, we are bidden to seek for interior gladness, lest, by running after that reward which is without, we should become conformed to the ways of this world, and should so lose the promise of that blessing which is all the truer and more solid as it is inward; that blessing wherein God chose us to be conformed to the likeness of His Son. In this chapter we will principally consider that vain-glory finds a ground for action in sordid poverty as much as in worldly distinction and display; and this development is the more dangerous, since it deceives under the pretence of serving God. He that is marked out by his unbridled indulgence in dress or luxury, or any other display, is by these very things recognised to be a follower of worldly vanities, and deceives no one by putting on a hypocritical mask of holiness. But those professing true Christianity, who draw all eyes on themselves by an eccentric show of filthiness and dirtiness, not suffered by necessity, but by their own will, we must judge of them by their other works, whether their conduct really proceeds from the desire of mortification, giving up unnecessary comfort, or is only the means of some ambitious design. The Lord tells us to beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing, but, by their fruits you shall know them, He says (Matt 7:20). We test them, when by some trials such persons lose the very things which, under the cover of pretended unworldliness, they either gained or sought to gain. Then it will appear whether they be wolves in sheep s clothing, or, indeed, sheep in their own. But, that hypocrites do such contrary things, does not entitle the true Christian to think it his duty to shine before the eyes of men by the display of needless luxury; for the sheep need not lay aside their own clothing, because wolves sometimes falsely assume it.
II. Let us note that Jesus combines fasting with prayers and alms, spoken of in this Gospel, as one of the best means to resist the devil. Though our Lord attacks the vain-glory attending the false virtues of the Pharisees, and making them hypocrites in the eyes of God, He does not condemn the sadness of a sinful, humbled, and contrite heart. On the contrary, this sadness accompanying our fasting, is agreeable to God. But He condemns the voluntary forced sadness, that comes not from a heart penetrated with the love of God, but is only exterior. It is a pretended sadness that tries to obtain the esteem of the multitude, who praise the severe penance of such people, whom God, seeing their hearts, justly condemns. The words of the Gospel: When thou fastest, anoint thy Head and wash thy face, must not be taken in a literal sense, for we should certainly be found guilty if observing them. The real meaning of these words is this: As the ancients anointed their heads and washed their faces in days of joy, so we, in the days of fasting, ought to show holy joy. It is evident that, in all these commandments, our Redeemer had in view one object only, that is, to make us enter into our own heart, there to find the interior joy of the Holy Ghost. There may be as much vanity in the neglected exterior appearance of some people and their mournful looks, as in fine garments and exterior cheerfulness. And this kind of vanity is to be feared the more, since it is the more deceitful under the appearance of piety and godliness. He, fasting, anoints his head, when subject to Jesus, his Divine Head, he refers to Him all the merits of fasting, and feels an interior joy when, avoiding the pleasures of the world for His sake, he takes no notice of the praise of the people. He washes his face, who is carefully purifying his heart, knowing that the sight of the countenance of the Lord is promised to a pure heart.
III. You wish to fast well; then humble your soul, especially at the approaching of that day, when the Teacher of humility humbled Himself and was obedient unto death, even to the death on the cross. Let us imitate Him in His sufferings by subduing our desires with salutary abstinence. Let us chastise our body in order to keep it into subjection, and, that our perverse flesh may not tempt us to commit unlawful deeds, let us refuse to it, at least for a time, the lawful enjoyment of some things. Drunkenness and intemperance can never be allowed; but in these holy days meals which may be permitted at other times, should be restricted. Your body will feel more obedient and subservient, the more it is separated from things lawful, and is accustomed to abstain from rightful pleasures. And you will continue in holy cheerfulness to retrench the expenses of your table, the excesses of meals, and even avoid whatsoever flatters the palate. Taken from Book II., On The Lord’s Sermon On The Mount, Chapter 12.