A couple of years ago, I volunteered with a national non-profit. Part of my volunteering involved monitoring their facebook page and also responding to emails/facebook messages. I will never forget one I received. It was an indignant facebook message. The woman’s father had just passed and she had provided envelopes at his funeral for donations to be made in his memory to the organization and it was also listed in his obituary. Her child had participated in our program. She was incensed that she had not received a formal acknowledgment or thanks from our national, but small organization. In our defense, her father had died less than a week before and our phone and email systems were not working properly (she said she called and left a message and emailed). I forwarded her information to our founders who contacted her and I responded via facebook my condolences and thanks in a lot more gracious mood than I felt at the time.
I thought of this incident last week while at Bible Study Fellowship where we had studied the 23rd chapter of Matthew and specifically verses 4-12 where the Scribes and Pharisees are called onto the carpet for their behavior meant to draw attention to their own piousness. It happened to also be the reading for today’s daily mass.
We Catholics (in the Latin rite) begin Lent with being marked by ashes. And we view this time as prayer, fasting and almsgiving in preparation for the death and resurrection of Christ. And we run into that great, great paradox. Chapter six of Matthew’s Gospel excoriates those who ostentasiously give alms, pray and fast. Christ tells us that when giving alms even our right hand should not know what our left does. When praying we should be in an inner room where no one can see. And when fasting, we should not look gloomy but to wash our faces, anoint our heads and not appear to be fasting. We are told that those who call attention to their donations, prayers or fasting have “already received their reward.” And yet here we are walking around with a big splotch of ashes on our foreheads and giving things up that can sometimes lead to awkward interactions with neighbors, co-workers and general public. I’ve been stopped in Wal-Mart and asked about my ashes and, in truth, I was embarrassed someone noticed, not to share why I was wearing them and evangelize though so I guess they served their purpose.
It occurred to me as I was reading about this year’s #ashtag controversy that motivation play a whole lot into this conversation of whose glory and honor we do things for. If others see us to be holy it shouldn’t be because we’ve called attention to ourselves in our good actions. Our BSF teaching leader gave the example of the person who complains of being SO tired because they: took their elderly neighbor who couldn’t drive to the doctor and then went to volunteer at the nursing home then went to this or that and it was amazing they made it to choir practice?! And so, those who put up sullen faced #ashtags are calling attention to their holiness much more than those who make goofy faces in their pics and are simply trying to show solidarity. And the curmudgeons criticizing all #ashtaggers are themselves guilty of flaunting their own piousness. Because guess what, you can do what Jesus said to the letter but if you’re doing it that way to be noticed or brag on it…you’ve received your reward.
Eastern Rite Catholics do not being Lent with ashes. But read that post further, there are other ways to draw attention to yourself on that side of the Church as well during Lent and some people are REALLY good at it.
Pride in our faith is one thing. Pride in our hearts wanting others to “look and see how holy I am!” is quite another. When I read the facebook messages of the woman demanding an acknowledgment, immediately I thought, “wait, was this to honor your father or to get recognition yourself?” And so should we view our prayer, fasting and almsgiving this Lent. Is it for the Father? Or is it for our own petty desire? Who are we giving glory and honor to?