In these early days of Lent, the scripture readings focus on what it means to “fast.” Today, the Old Testament reading from Isaiah (58:1-9a) roundly condemns the kind of “fasting” that is done from surface motivations. When he calls out the House of Jacob for whining that the Lord does not see their fasting and self-affliction, he minces no words in explaining why: They are doing their fasts as a matter of routine. Their fasting is all about appearances, while they continue with daily activities that are at best superficial and at worst deeply sinful. They do not see the problem with merely going through the motions while failing to fully respond to the Lord. Isaiah then lays out what true “fasting” – “a day acceptable to the Lord” – looks like.
And what it looks like is much less about what the people do to themselves, and much more about what they do for those around them who are in need. The actions that Isaiah outlines are a foreshadowing of the Beatitudes and the actions Jesus asks of us, in Matthew 25, toward “the least of our brethren.”
The promise, in Isaiah, is that with this right kind of fasting, “your light shall break forth like the dawn….” And the image that this promise evokes is just so beautiful. One of my favorite early morning routines is to open my window blinds while it is still dark outside, and then to sit with a cup of tea and watch the light begin to break over my little part of the world. Whether the day is cloudy or sunny, the simple process of light replacing darkness makes me remember that God is always working and always saving us. No matter how I might have failed before, here is new light.
It’s the beginning of that new light that makes Psalm 51, a deeply penitential psalm, so full of hope. We offer God our contrition for the past, and in return He promises that He will not turn us away.
And finally, as with each of the Gospels in these early days of Lent, Jesus neatly summarizes the truth for us: It isn’t the amount of fasting we do, or the depth of our sadness and mourning, that brings us a reward. It is Jesus, the Bridegroom, Whose presence is the reward. I think the underlying truth here is that when our “fasting” is rooted in love for our Lord, it takes us out of ourselves and our daily routines and inspires us to live “a day acceptable to the Lord.” He is with us, and we have joy and light.
My Jesus, I desire very much this day to “fast” in the ways that honor You and that keep me on a path of light, love, and joy. Save me, please, Lord, from merely living my routine. Show me the needs around me, inspire me in the ways that love responds, and strengthen me to offer myself in response so that I may live a day acceptable to You. You, Jesus, are my reward. Amen.
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