Prayer as Lenten Practice

In today’s Gospel we read St. Matthew’s version of Jesus teaching the disciples how to pray.  To better understand this passage it is helpful to remember that it appears in the middle of the passage that we read for Ash Wednesday.  In that passage, St. Matthew counseled us to give alms, to pray, and to fast in secret.  From this Gospel, we get the traditional three-fold charter for Lent.


However, if we read the passage as a chiasm, we can see that the middle section is the focus of the reading.  Chiasms are figures of speech that focus our attention on the middle of the passage by surrounding the middle with material that mirrors each other. 


In the case of chapter six, St. Matthew tells us that prayer is the lynchpin of our Lenten practices framed as it is by the alms giving and fasting.  The prayer that we read here is the famous Lord’s Prayer.  St. Matthew adds a little interpretation to the end of the prayer just in case we might have missed the core meaning of the prayer; namely, we are forgiven in the measure with which we forgive.


This rather strong statement lends new meaning to the questions of alms giving and fasting.  To be completely honest, nothing in the human experience is half as difficult as forgiving those who have sinned against us, who have hurt us, who have slandered us, who have taken advantage of us.  Such experiences expose our vulnerabilities and make relationships very difficult.  It is far easier to open our pocket books and offer monetary support.  It is far easier to “give up” a favorite food item or activity.  Yet St. Matthew indicates that all the alms giving and all the fasting in the world are not going to help us if we do not reach out to those who have hurt us with forgiveness and mercy.  If we enter into Lent seeking forgiveness for our sins, trying to reestablish our relationships with God, we will only be successful if we make an effort to forgive others.  We cannot expect God to give us what we hold back.


I have often thought that the people who put the Lectionary for Mass together have done us a disservice by excerpting the Lord’s Prayer from the passage used on Ash Wednesday.  We are a full week into Lent.  Perhaps their intention was always to force us to come back to the issue after a week’s time.  By this time, we should have established our Lenten rhythm.  Now we need to delve ever more deeply into the nature of our fractured and broken relationships with God and our neighbors.


Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator


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