“Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” – Mat. 6:1
This must be the character of our Lenten practice. Not showy or self-aggrandizing, but humble, secret. Note the term “in secret”, it will be repeated and form a kind of theme.
“Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” – ibid., vv. 2-4
The giving of alms is a physical fulfillment of the second part of the great commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31) To use the vernacular we “put our money where our mouth is.” Charity is central to Christian practice, but how we give alms is just as important. Humility must permeate our almsgiving. Humility is how we should approach God and our fellow man. The Lord not only cautions us against pride and seeking praise from others, but also self praise saying “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” Note again that this is “in secret”.
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when 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. And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” – ibid., vv. 5-8
This I take as an image of the practice of hesychasm, the prayer of the heart, the Jesus prayer. The room with the door shut is the heart shut off from the chaos of temporal life – the secret place. There God meets us – “our Father who is in secret.” The secret unknowable Trinity is made manifest in the prayer of the heart. Lord Jesus Christ son of God have mercy on me a sinner. Not many words. Not an empty phrase.
“Pray then like this:
Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy 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 lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.”
– ibid., vv. 9-13
Volumes have been written on The Lord’s Prayer. I will not attempt to meditate on it here. Perhaps another time. Just not the communal interpersonal aspect of prayer. We not only pray in secret, but we pray together.
“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” – ibid., vv. 14-15
The Last Sunday before Lent is Forgiveness Sunday. Forgiveness begins of our journey to Pascha.
“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” – ibid., vv. 16-18
Fasting like charity is a given in Christian practice. Our mode of fasting is what concerns our Lord in this passage. Again humility is the setting for fasting, and again “in secret” is the image used.
Note the structure of these verses, how they image the threefold path of our Lenten journey. Prayer both in the heart and in community is at the center supported by Charity and Fasting. These three pillars must be practiced in the spirit of humility. “Not seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”