Isaiah 58:1-9 / Matthew 5:43-48; 6:1-4
A question often used by preachers and catechists is this: If you were put on trial to be convicted of being a Christian, what kind of evidence would the prosecution have? Said more simply, could anyone who did not know you intimately be able to know that you have been redeemed by the blood of Christ and become a member of his Body, a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit?
As a catechetical device, the aim is simple. Should anyone be eager to protest such things as a baptismal certificate or frequent attendance at church or a Bible or crucifix featured prominently at home, the catechist quickly asks whether such things are what Christianity is all about. That is, as important as our ritual and devotional observances are, does our whole way of life, does our response especially to those most in need, reveal the kind of person in whom the God who hears the cries of the poor has chosen to dwell? The aim, then, is to prepare us better to hear the challenge of the prophet Isaiah: Is this such a fast as I have chosen, for a man to afflict his soul for a day? is this it, to wind his head about like a circle, and to spread sackcloth and ashes? wilt thou call this a fast and a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this rather the fast that I have chosen? loose the bands of wickedness, undo the bundles that oppress, let them that are broken go free, and break asunder every burden. Deal thy bread to the hungry, and bring the needy and the harborless into thy house: when thou shalt see one naked, cover him, and despise not thine own flesh. Or, in the simpler but even more challenging words of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ: Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you; and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you: that you may be the children of your Father Who is in heaven, Who maketh His sun to rise upon the good and bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust.
This, however, is where things take an odd turn for our prosecutor. While Isaiah insists that our justice for the poor and oppressed, for the marginalized and despised, will cause our light to break forth as the morning, Jesus is quite clear that we do not do our justice before men, to be seen by them. All this sacrificial goodness, the fasting that comes from real, actual, tangible justice for the hungry, the poor, the downtrodden, the imprisoned, and all of the divinely patterned goodness in the love of enemies, the generosity to be shown in as great a quantity for the enemy and oppressor as for the friend and ally, is supposed to be kept simple, discrete, in secret. On this reading, we might end up being unjustly acquitted, found not guilty of the Christian faith, not because we had not made it actual in our lives, but because we kept our goodness all too well hidden.
If that were the case, would we mind? That is, suppose that our fasting from wickedness and our justice on behalf of the poor, and our goodness and prayer for the wicked, had a real, noticeable impact, that the lives of the poor were meaningfully made more in keeping with human dignity and our enemies, if not any better for our efforts, at least more manifestly wicked for their hardness of heart, while at the same time no one could trace it to us. Would that not be a life worth living? If everyone else got the fanfare and we were overlooked by the whole world, yet knew that we had become more conformed to Christ, more deeply impressed in our soul by the love of the Holy Spirit, would that not be an unfair exchange, not for us, but for those who settled for the world's acclaim?
Odds are, no one will know what you will do this Lent. None will be able to tell your struggles against vice, the time or money spent at the local soup kitchen or volunteering at the local legal clinic. No one will be able to recite the depth of your prayer for your enemies, recited quietly on the commute to work. No one, that is, except the one who really matters, the one who loved you from before the foundation of the world in in whom you live, and move, and have being.
... and thy Father, Who seeth in secret, will repay thee.