Friday, February 27, 2009

What Are You Giving Up For Lent?

What are you giving up for Lent? Sister Marie Rose asked our fourth-grade class that question early one morning, and during recess, we continued the conversation. One of the boys said, “I’m going to give up girls, forever!” Another said, “Broccoli!” That started a litany of other food, mostly vegetables, like turnips and parsnips, or meats, such as liver and lamb. Then, some of the boys started saying that the liked whatever another boy disliked. The conversation turned into a discussion; the discussion became a debate; the debate, an argument; the argument, a fist fight. I don’t know what happened on the girls’ side of the school yard. I suspect it wasn’t very different – minus the fist fight.

Giving up a food you don’t relish in the first place is a rather childish way of approaching Lent, typical for fourth grades, but not very appropriate for grown ups. If we’re not in fourth grade, but in the fourth decade of life, as some of you are, or the fourth decade of priesthood, as I am, then it’s time, as Paul said, to “put away childish things”.

Today’s readings challenge us to rethink our ideas about fasting and other “penitential practices”. The prophet Isaiah raises a fundamental question: If you ignore the fast day altogether? If your fast day ends in quarreling and fighting? If you strut about the town with a large smudge of ashes on your forehead, peacock-proud that you’ve shown the world how pious you are? If you do any of these things, and others too numerous to list, ask yourself Isaiah’s question: Is your fasting truly pleasing to the LORD?

In today’s gospel the disciples of John the Baptist approached the question of fasting from the opposite perspective. They came to Jesus and asked, “Why we fast, and so do the Pharisees, but your disciples don’t? What makes your followers different?” Jesus, typically, answered their question with a question: “Would guests at a wedding be mournful, so long as the groom is still at the reception? The time will come when the groom will leave, and that’s the time they’re going to be mournful.”

That passage from Matthew’s gospel is easier to understand if you remember that wedding feasts in the Holy Land, like the wedding feast at Cana in John’s gospel, could last three or four days. The groom was the host, and he stayed with the celebration until the wine ran out. (At Cana, it disappeared early, but that’s another story.) But, Jesus had something else in mind, which the disciples didn’t know about. The day was soon approaching that he would be leaving, when the time came to accomplish the mission for which he was sent by the Father: the mission of redemption and reconciliation.

This is the mystery of our faith, and we are proud to profess it:
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Jesus left the wedding banquet after the Last Supper, returned on Easter morning, and left again for his eternal abode on the day of the Ascension. The question now is: What will we, his disciples, do until his return in glory?

The answer can be found in the First Reading:

Release those bound unjustly: Fast from ignoring injustice; speak up for someone who can’t.
Set free the oppressed: Fast from ignoring abusiveness; find a way to lift the burden.
Share your bread with the hungry: Fast from gluttony; give from your substance, not your excess.
Shelter the homeless: Fast from shutting out the rest of the world; open your door and your heart.
Clothe the naked: Fast from adding to your wardrobe; donate your “old clothes” when they’re still wearable.
Do not turn your back on your own: Fast from waiting for the other guy to make the first move; make the call that will heal a broken relationship.

Do this, and you will be ready to greet the risen Lord when He comes again!

Credit for Fasting Litany to Michelle Vander Missen, St. Monica, Indianapolis.

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