Ash Wednesday: Praying in Secret. Acting in the Open

Matthew 6 is a topical reading for Ash Wednesday because it relates not only to private prayer and piety but also to piety that is publicly visible.

The Mass itself leaves no visible sign on the communicant. There is, of course, an inward grace that is imparted by the Sacrament, but there is nothing empirically different about a person who has just been to Mass.

Ash Wednesday is different because part of our liturgy involves the priest smudging ashes in a cross formation on the foreheads of the congregants. Here, we have the inward grace of the Sacrament reinforced with a physical sign of penitence on the body.

For those who do not attend Mass but do receive ashes--see also our outreach programme Ashes to Go--the ashes are indeed the only sacramental that these people receive. And, again, this is a visible and public-facing sacramental.

How do we understand our practice of visible penance with respect tonight’s reading from Matthew?

The scripture says:

“Whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting … But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Is the Evangelist really suggesting that we eschew public penance?

By the same logic wouldn’t we be required to remove all the penitential rites from our Mass, including the confiteor and the Kyrie?

This argument could problematise all public worship of God--which by definition involves being seen by others and engaging, at least to some degree, with a public admission of regret for sins both personal and corporate.

I believe this passage cannot be understood literally to undermine public penance, because if that were the case, and we were truly to take our tradition seriously, it would be difficult to know how we could worship as a community in the Body of Christ.

What Matthew 6 instead shows us is the ambiguity of the economy of God--God at once visible and invisible--and the importance of our intentions in approaching the altar of God. Our worship, these passages argue, must not only be visible as a corporate act but also intentional so that the movement of our souls mirrors our bodies.

The dialectical structure of Matthew 6, with its contrasts of visible and hidden, public and private, challenges us to mirror the economy of God in our worship. It’s not enough for us to have ashes on our faces. We also have to wear ashes in “secret” i.e. invisibly as well.

First things first--the fundamental ambiguity of God who is both visible and hidden--public and private.

Lutheran scholar James H. Burtness argues that God’s actions in the world are fundamentally ambiguous in that they are once a process of revealing and concealing. He argues further that the scriptures, in particular Matthew 6, support this understanding as essential to God’s economy and therefore our obedience to God.

To illustrate his point, Burtness discusses the textual additions to Matthew that the early Christian communities made to clear up the “doubless” of the Gospel--additions that over time became canonical.

By the time of the Reformation these changes had become indistinguishable from the original texts and were thus carried over into what became highly influential translations of the Bible--in the English world most famously the King James translation. And so these additions also shaped how generations of Christians came to understand Matthew.

Take, for example, these sentences from the King James translation of Matthew 6:

“But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.”


“But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly”

Nowadays, the King James translation is loved for the beauty of its English but evolving scholarship has revealed a number of textual problems that later translations have addressed. The current standard translation, the New Revised Standard Revision, renders the above quotes as follows:

“But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you”


“But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you”

What’s immediately striking, other than the archaic language in the first translation and the modern language in the second, is the absence of the phrase “Shall reward thee openly” in the most current translation.

This may seem a small addition, but in fact it’s a significant change in meaning.

The King James translation, and the historical understandings of Matthew informed by it, have tended to see public glory--or at least vindication--as divine reward for good behaviour.

This is almost a quid pro quo economy where God publically--and temporally--rewards piety in the open.

Current and more accurate translations remove the historical Christian footnote from the canonical text and allow the original ambiguity of Matthew 6 to shine its puzzling light.

The promise of reward is still there, but it is not temporally assured. It may be visible. It may be invisible. It may occur on earth or it may be deferred in Paradise. God isn’t bound to give a sign in the here and now.

As Burtness puts it, “Anyone soaked in the law/gospel dialectic would come quickly and naturally to an epistemological dialectic of "now you see it, now you don't" with regard to all theological questions.”

This pithy dialectic--now you see it, now you don’t--applies to some of the most fundamental doctrines of our tradition. The Real Presence, for example, is a doctrine of the simultaneous visibility of the bread and wine and of Christ’s actual body and blood hidden within them. The body and the blood of Christ himself are entirely visible, there to be touched and tasted but they are also concealed by the very elements that reveal them. In the same way, the church is entirely visible and entirely hidden at the same time.

So what does all this business of hidden and visible, visible and invisible have to do with us gathered here tonight?

Quite simply, we are called to an outward worship that is also an inward worship. We are called to grapple with a God that reveals himself in the penance of Lent while at the same time deferring himself until the triumph of Easter.

Our challenge is not fixate exclusively on outward signs of our relationship with God--although these are also a way by which God reveals Himself in the church--but also to align our penitential intentions with our penitential actions, both physical and spiritual.

In other words, that which is “in the open” must also, ultimately align with what is hidden. In this way we ultimately align our actions with God’s movements in the world.

Bonhoeffer writes:

“Precisely because the Christian life is of its very nature extraordinary, it is at the same time ordinary, natural, and hidden. If not, it is not the Christian life at all, it is not obedience to the will of Jesus Christ. Thus hiddenness has its counterpart in manifestation.”

In other words, in worship both visible and invisible we live our lives in obedience towards Christ.

And what of hiddenness? What does it mean to offer a prayerful intention at the altar as well as a prayerful body?

In his ancient commentary on Matthew 6, St Hilary of Poitiers says “We are asked to pray with the bedroom door closed, as it were, and we are taught to pour out our prayer in every place … Hence we are admonished not to enter the recesses of our homes but the bedroom of our hearts.”
This Lent, may we embrace the ambiguity of God’s work in our lives: both revealing itself and hiding itself, and mirror this doubleness in our Lenten observances. May we also bring to our lives faithful intentions mirrored in faithful actions--not in the recesses of our homes but the bedroom of our hearts.

Alae Taule'alo