Each year the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is taken from the 6th Chapter of the Gospel of Matthew: “When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. … When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. … When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting.”
Notice, the Lord does not say “If” you give alms, pray and fast. Instead, the Lord says “When” you give alms, pray, and fast. Jesus presumes we will give alms, pray and fast. These three are fundamental elements of the Christian life. They go together. For many people, however, prayer is something one does. Giving alms (or taking care of the needs of neighbor) is a good thing but it is separate from prayer. Fasting is rarely undertaken other than for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
In reality, these three go hand in hand. One is not complete without the others. As St. Peter Chrysologus, one of the Doctors of the Church (which means a very learned person) who served as a bishop in Italy in the 5th century, wrote:
Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated. If you have only one of them, you have nothing. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others, you open God’s ear to yourself. When you fast, see the fasting of others.”
St. Peter Chrysologus said that we should let prayer, mercy and fasting be one single plea to God on our behalf.
Prayer without the love of neighbor in our heart is empty. Jesus told us that “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” (Mt 5:23-24)
Yet, alms alone offers no guarantee of God’s acceptance of our prayer. A proud heart wins no favor with God. As the psalmist writes: “The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God. (Ps 51:17) We can give alms to the poor but with a haughtiness which empties the gift of meaning before God. Fasting is one of the best ways of humbling oneself before God. To fast is to be hungry. Choosing to be hungry can unite us with the hungers of others. Important also is the fact that the hunger of the stomach can bring the heart to realize its hunger for God; to realize that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Mt 4:4) Fasting allows us to experience the hunger for human things so that we may humbly empty our hearts in order to be filled by the divine things for which our heart truly hungers.
It is with this humility of heart that we can approach God in prayer. God hungers for a humble heart because it is such a heart that can receive the gifts God wishes to bestow on us in prayer. When we humble ourselves before God and approach God in prayer, not as an equal but as a beggar, our hearts become humble. And then, having experienced the love of God in prayer, we will be impelled to share this love with others through mercy and alms. In order to avoid the pride which can creep into almsgiving, fasting brings our heart to humility.
The three: almsgiving, prayer and fasting, go together. This is not merely a lesson for Lent, it is a lesson to be followed in every season of life.