Friday, March 7, 2014

When you do something sacrificial for the Lord, keep your eyes on the goal, not the sacrifice itself.

“Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others, you open God’s ear to yourself” - Saint Peter Chrysologus

Scripture Text: (IS 58:1-9A)
Thus says the Lord GOD:
Cry out full-throated and unsparingly,
lift up your voice like a trumpet blast;
Tell my people their wickedness,
and the house of Jacob their sins.
They seek me day after day,
and desire to know my ways,
Like a nation that has done what is just
and not abandoned the law of their God;
They ask me to declare what is due them,
pleased to gain access to God.
“Why do we fast, and you do not see it?
afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it?”

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 really kicks our butts today in the first reading at Mass. He tells us that engaging in trivial fasts that discomfort ourselves a bit while we continue to engage in the selfish pursuits that discomfort others a lot isn’t penance for anything. Giving up a bit of food while we at the same time deprive others of their sustenance is not fasting. Sharing what we have with the hungry is the kind of fast that God finds acceptable. What that means to me is that giving up coffee and meat for Lent, while it will be a huge discomfort, is not going to bring me any closer to God from God’s perspective. It will only give me the feeling that I can gain more self-control over myself and maybe lose a few pounds for the sake of vanity. It is just about me tinkering with my own pain/gain games.

The prophet (Isaiah) tells us that God doesn’t like it when his people fast for a few days but then fight as soon as the fast is over. It’s clear that their hearts have not been changed. They were fasting only because it was required, not because they wanted to draw closer to the Lord. He explains that fasting has value only if it results in a greater concern for the poor, the needy, and the oppressed. Likewise, in Psalm 51, David acknowledges that God loves the “sacrifice” of a contrite heart more than a “burnt offering” made out of duty or obligation.

Clearly, God wants us to keep our fasting in perspective. He wants us to keep the goal in the forefront of our minds. So as you fast and give up things this Lent, keep your eyes focused on the transformation that God wants to do in your heart. Keep envisioning the person he wants you to become, and you’ll find your way through to the other side.

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