Monday, March 10, 2014

Fasting: The Prophet Isaiah's Advice

Fasting is one of the three hallmarks of our Lenten observation. Often, in our liturgies, we hear the Prophet Isaiah  instruct and test us on our motives for fasting. But do I really believe what I hear?  Do I really listen to and through the words that ask me how my fasting is going this Lent?  Do I make a distinction between how I define fasting and how God defines it?

 I suppose it is no surprise that instead of comforting me, God may need to rebuke me since I am like a yo-yo with reference to my disciplinary abilities.  Through Isaiah, I hear:
 “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.” 
“Really, Lord,” I ask in self-defense, “How do I do that? I am not an employer, a CEO, a farmworker’s boss or a trafficker of women and children? Whom do I seek to control?  Do I criticize my student who is just learning to create something new? Don’t I truly appreciate the gifts of the persons I live with?  I don’t think that I am so insensitive.”

 But God goes on almost begging me to look again, listen anew: “Would that today you might fast so as to make your voice heard on high! Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? “No!” God says.  “Rather, this is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke . . .” This time, with a softer heart I may ask: “Lord, do you mean I have to stop squeezing the last penny out of my renter? Do I really have to go along with raising the minimum wage when I could lose millions? Why should I give something to the Sunday Offertory plate?”

 And that is not yet sufficient, God says: “I want you to share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and homeless, clothe the naked when you see them, and not turn your back on your own. . .”
”What do you mean, Lord, am I my brothers’ keeper?  Catholic Charities can do that or the Bishops’ Relief fund or there are the Lutheran Relief Services and the Salvation Army.  Why should I have to do that, too?”

And God may answer: “Because you are, indeed, your brothers’ keeper, but fear not, there is something for you too! When you do these things, the 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 will be your rear guard. Moreover when you cry for help, I will answer: ‘Here I am!’”

Now, who among us would not long to answer wholeheartedly: “Thanks, God, for speaking to me!” 

And, one last word on fasting.  If we need further instruction on how to fast, we can find it in the writings of 5th century St. Peter Chrysologus: “Fasting bears no fruit unless it is watered by mercy.  Fasting dries up when mercy dries up.  Mercy is to fasting as rain is to the earth. However much you may cultivate your heart, clear the soil of your nature, root out vices, sow virtues, if you do not release the springs of mercy, your fasting will bear no fruit.”  Again, we answer: “Thanks, God, for speaking and helping us!  Without you we can do nothing; but with you we can do all things.”

Renée Domeier, OSB

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