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Jesus’s often-overlooked Lenten exhortation

Most of us are familiar with the tools Jesus gives us for our Lenten journey: prayer, fasting and penance, and almsgiving. We are reminded of these every Ash Wednesday in the Gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6).

I think we often overlook Jesus’s other exhortation for all three spiritual disciplines. He tells us to do them in private, unlike the “hypocrites” who blow trumpets when they give alms, stand and pray on street corners and in the synagogue to get attention, and look gloomy when fasting so everyone knows what they are doing.

They have received their reward, Jesus says. There is little left to gain if their hearts are not in the right place.

But if we’re private about our Lenten sacrifices – if we don’t let our left hand know what our right hand is doing when giving alms, go to our inner room to pray, and act normally when we are fasting – we do have something to gain. “Your father who sees in secret will repay you.” (Matthew 6:4)

I think most of us are naturally inclined to talk about what we’re doing for Lent, both to be part of the community but also to let others know how committed we are. That’s where we can get on the slippery slope of our Lenten sacrifices becoming at least partially about recognition.

We may not blow a trumpet when we give alms, or pray loudly on the street corner, or tell everyone we meet we’re fasting, but we like to be acknowledged and noticed.

In recent years, I’ve focused more on the private aspect of Lent, trying to really carry out my observances without sharing much about them. It helps keep my motives pure and avoids the temptation to seek recognition from others. I grow more spiritually when I recognize my own sinfulness, do a better job of fasting, praying, and loving, and keeping it between Jesus and me.

If we do that, this holy season of penance will hopefully change us not just for this Lent and the glory of Easter, but for years to come.

Jesus is clear about praying, fasting, and giving alms in private. May I suggest we use these wonderful gifts for our spiritual growth, but also do our best to keep our efforts between us and God?

Jesus is also clear that we will be “repaid” for our efforts. Our reward will not necessarily come in this life, but in the eternal life to come.

(Msgr. John Enzler serves as the mission advocate of Catholic Charities of The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington and is a chaplain at his alma mater, St. John’s College High School in Washington. He writes the Faith in Action column for the archdiocese’s Catholic Standard and Spanish-language El Pregonero newspapers and websites.)