Today, Ash Wednesday, the Gospel reading is from Matthew, on almsgiving in secret. I offer to you an alternate reading which approaches the Lenten season from a different direction: Mark 8:27-33.
Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.
He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Today, Ash Wednesday, we begin the Lenten Journey to Easter, and this is the time of year when we must answer again for ourselves the fundamental question of our Christian identity: who, to us (to me!) is Jesus? Brother, teacher, master, Lord, God? Peter distinguishes himself in this passage (and in the parallel passage in Matthew) by his impetuosity in declaring Jesus to be the Christ, the messiah. But, as Mark is quick to point out, while his heart is in the right place, he does not really “get it.” No sooner does he declare Jesus the Messiah than he rejects the role laid out for the Messiah (and foretold by the prophet Isaiah). It took him much longer (indeed, well past the Resurrection) before he understood who Jesus is.
Today at mass we said all the right words: but do we really understand what we are saying? Do we really mean it? For the next forty days we are called to revisit this question–“Who do you say I am?”–not only in an intellectual sense, but from the heart. We cannot simply say, “Jesus is Lord.” As we heard in the gospel last Sunday:
Jesus said to his disciples: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.(Mt 7:21)
So I commend to you (as I hope for myself) this Lenten season, a time to learn anew the answer to this central question of our faith.