For the Gospel for Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18):
A homily from the works of St John Chrysostom, Bishop.
And when ye fast, be not as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast.
Here we do well to sigh aloud, and to wail bitterly: for not only do we imitate the hypocrites, but we have even surpassed them. For, brothers and sisters, I know many, not merely fasting and making a display of it, but instead they neglect to fast, and yet still make a show as if being one of them that fast. They cloak themselves with an excuse worse than their sin. For “I do this,” say they, “that I may not offend everyone.” What? There is a law of God which commands these things, and you’re worried about “offense”? You imagine, I think, that in the keeping of God’s law there is offense, and in not keeping God’s law you are saving your neighbors from offense? And what can be worse than this folly?
When the Lord Jesus said, “Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth,” it was not of hands that he was speaking, of course, but of our duty to keep our piety hidden from all. When he commanded us to enter into our closet for prayer, he didn’t say to go there alone all the time, nor even to go there primarily. He command us to pray, but he reminded us to be private. So likewise here, in commanding us “to be anointed” when we fast, he is not giving us a new command to anoint ourselves! As one can see clearly from David and from Daniel it was the fashion, for festive occasions to anoint oneself. Jesus says that we must anoint ourselves, not that we should positively do this, but that by all means we might endeavor, with great strictness, to hide what we were doing from others. If we were to always anoint ourselves when fasting that would just as surely proclaim it before others as fake morbidity.
Jesus does not make the fast more strict, nor command us to practice more of it, but he does command us that we should not lose our reward because of our pride and vainglory. Of course both hypocrites and the pious have the same command – to fast. Yet to those who actually follow Jesus the command is made all the more easy: he adds nothing to our toils, but only insists that we gather our wages with all security. Jesus will not suffer us to go away unrewarded, as these others do.
Think of an athlete, a gymnast in the Olympic games. Though he works before so great a multitude sitting there, and so many princes, he desires to please only one: the judge; and this though the judge be much the inferior to the athletes. We have a twofold motive for displaying the our victory only to Christ. Jesus is the one supreme Judge. Also he is beyond compare fully superior to all that are sitting in the theatre. Yet we still greatly enjoy making our display before others – and these cannot only not give us the prize, but they can also take it away from us!