Jesus repeatedly embraced the religious practices of his day but wanted to keep them squarely focused on God.
He made that especially clear in his elevating and purifying of the three traditional penances of prayer, fasting and almsgiving (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18).
“It’s all about growing in our relationship with God,” said Bishop W. Shawn McKnight. “It’s not for show. It has nothing to do with trying to build-up our esteem or what people think of us.”
Bishop McKnight offered Mass at noon on Ash Wednesday for the diocesan Chancery staff.
It was the beginning of Lent, the 40-day season of penance to prepare for the Easter Truduum, the celebration of Jesus’s sacrificial death and resurrection.
Bishop McKnight encouraged everyone to take up some manifestation of all three traditional penances as tools for conversion throughout Lent.
“The Church, in her wisdom over the centuries, has given us this great gift of the season as a time for baptismal renewal and the call to repentance,” he said.
People who are preparing for Sacraments of Initiation at
Easter are particularly focused on conversion throughout these 40 days.
“And the rest of us who are already baptized, we all know that we need to go through conversion again and again and again,” the bishop noted.
Almsgiving, praying and fasting, all properly focused, are important means of repairing and strengthening one’s relationship with God.
Bishop McKnight talked about how fasting — “denying the body something that it has a right to, for a spiritual purpose” — ties the spiritual to the physical.
“It makes it really real so that our religion is not just a thing of the mind,” he stated. “Our religion is made concrete in our bodies.”
He noted that fasting could take the form of giving up a specific food or activity or other source of comfort.
Jesus also encouraged His followers to set aside personal time for prayer and to give generously to people in need.
Bishop McKnight reflected on how from fasting and prayer flows a spirit of love and generosity for people who have less than they need.
“Almsgiving, that sharing of what we have, whatever sharing that may be — money, or things, or time, or attention to people who needs it — is a proper penance,” he said.
“And prayer is what makes sure that we do that with the proper motivation,” he added.
In tying these three penances together, Jesus underscores his twofold commandment to love God and love other people. That is the foundation of discipleship.
Bishop McKnight encouraged everyone to begin their Lenten journey by praying for one another “as we look forward to growing closer to the Lord, who is the one who saves us.”