Saturday, February 25, 2023

The “Fasting” That God Wants From Us

It is important to fast—to make sacrifices regarding the food we eat—especially for us rich Western people who are healthy and take food for granted. Lent provides us with opportunities for fasting, although in the Latin rite the only obligatory fast days are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The whole season of Lent is “penitential,” however, and we often make various kinds of sacrifices of food or practice other acts of self-denial.

These practices help us to cooperate with God’s grace. We “make space within our freedom” for the Holy Spirit to heal us and enable us to grow in love in union with Jesus our Savior.

The point of it all is conformity to the will of God. For Christians, it is a particular challenge in our times to allow our religious observances to be integral to our desire to recognize Christ, adhere to Him, serve Him in love—love for God our Father and for our “neighbors,” our brothers and sisters in Christ, the real human persons who have been given to us each day in our lives, our work, our communities, and (especially) our churches. Then there are others that we are called to seek out and care for in their suffering, accompanying them with solidarity and compassion.

How easy it is to forget the centrality of Jesus and His purpose in shaping our lives, and subtly replace it with a self- (or group- ) affirmation of a partisan identity that we think makes us “right and good” and demeans others as unworthy (of our concern). We imagine that we are pleasing God by performing certain works—not really for the love of God but more and more like badges that we “wear” in order to declare ourselves the “Party of God”—and we don’t even notice that we are fostering dissensions, fighting, and slandering our neighbors. Then we oppress others (the poor of body and/or mind) by profiting off them—if not directly or materially, then in the inflation of our egos at the expense of their indigence. Instead of helping them we neglect them, we ignore them, or perhaps we become so full of our self-righteousness that we are unaware of their existence. We are deaf to the cries of their poverty, to Jesus Crucified in their wounds.

What value, then, is there to our fasting?

The liturgical reading from the book of Isaiah shows that there is nothing new about this problem. Also, as inspired Sacred Scripture, these words have a perennial value. The Holy Spirit speaks to us through these words today. Listening to the Spirit, with an open and humble heart, will bear important fruit that will sustain us in our Lenten journey and in difficult times to come:

[God’s People cry out to the Lord:]

“Why do we fast, and you do not see it? 

afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it?”

[The Lord answers them:]

“Lo, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits, 

and drive all your laborers. 

Yes, your fast ends in quarreling and fighting,

striking with wicked claw.

Would that today you might fast

so as to make your voice heard on high!

Is this the manner of fasting I wish,

of keeping a day of penance:

That a man bow his head like a reed

and lie in sackcloth and ashes?

Do you call this a fast,

a day acceptable to the Lord?

This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:

releasing those bound unjustly,

untying the thongs of the yoke;

Setting free the oppressed,

breaking every yoke;

Sharing your bread with the hungry,

sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;

Clothing the naked when you see them,

and not turning your back on your own.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,

and your wound shall quickly be healed;

Your vindication shall go before you,

and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer,

you shall cry for help, and he will say: ‘Here I am!’”

~Isaiah 58:1-9