And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
St Matthew 6:16-18 (ESV)
Perish the thought that Lenten fasting is an arbitrary exercise in deprivation for its own sake. The Christian is not at liberty to take masochistic pleasure or a sense of super-spiritual heroism in the pain of deprivation. So his fasting, his giving something up, must have the practical purpose of gaining something else. Jesus assumes this: His disciples will fast, and for their fasting will gain some reward. The question is: What reward do they hope to gain?
Those who broadcast their fasting to the world receive their reward upon the world’s receipt of the news. The nature of such a reward may vary greatly, according to audience — disbelief and ridicule from libertines, admiration from ascetics and high moralists. But the duration of the reward will not vary, not much anyway: the fasting will be seen, noted, and responded to, and that will be that.
Contrast those who season their fasts with oil and good cheer. They will be rewarded by their Father “who sees in secret.” The nature of their rewards will also vary widely, according to their sundry callings, needs, and desires — though all their rewards will be very good, since the Giver is both rich and generous.* And their rewards will endure longer than a little rubbernecking and a few idle words from the cheap seats.
So two implications from the foregoing. First, it might be beneficial to adjust our Lenten dialogue a bit, to make our first question what are you gaining for Lent? Only when we have answered that question does its proper Lenten corollary — what are you giving up to get that? — make sense. Second, all those wearing ashes on their heads next Wednesday evening should, for the several weeks following, be among the cheeriest and best-groomed people you know.
* See, e.g., St Matthew 20:1-15, 7:7-11; St James 1:17; St Luke 12:22-32; Psalm 37:4