Today, Ash Wednesday, calls us to embark upon our Lenten journey with the very visible mark of ashes crossed upon our foreheads. By these ashes we not only stand apart from others, but also we literally project visibly to all the reminder of our belief in the transience of this physical existence and the common dust from which God creates us and to which we decompose after death.
In today's Gospel, Jesus outlines the three pillars of Lent: almsgiving, prayer and fasting.
But in contrast to the stark show of our faith by the ashes we wear today, he commands us to give alms, to pray, and to fast in secret. "Your Father who sees in secret will repay you," he says.
Is Jesus saying that we must go to great pains to obscure our acts of penitence from the world? Aren't there good reasons to build our faith by praying, fasting and giving alms in community, and to bear witness to others' acts of righteousness?
Of course there are - to name just a couple, community observation of these practices teaches our children by example to be good Catholics, and it is a way we generate awareness for important causes.
Rather, it's a matter of intention. Jesus says, ""Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father."
That is, let not the motivation of your Lenten practice be to attract the attention and admiration of others. Faith moved by this impetus is hollow; the act sinks. So-called spiritual deeds motivated by the temporal plane of physicality and intended for human eyes are, by intention, too heavy to rise to heaven.
"Amen I say to you, they have received their reward," Jesus says of such hypocrites. Their reward is fleeting, worldly, unsanctified and constrained by short-sighted humanity.
But intend your individual acts only to be seen by the Father, and your reward will be far greater, sweeter and more enduring than any human accolade. For humans, after all, are walking dust, while the Father who animates them is eternal.