Friday, February 19, 2010

A Heart Contrite And Humbled, O God, You Will Not Spurn

Friday after Ash Wednesday
Reading I
Isaiah 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!
A magnificent and, in many ways, a frightening passage from Isaiah. It points to where true religion is to be found.

We have here a wonderful prophetic call in the spirit of those great prophets who lived in the post-Exile period. The call is for an inward spirit to match outward observance. A call that pervades Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel and is found touched on in today’s Gospel.

“Lift up your voice like a trumpet blast.” Big feasts and the beginning of fasts were proclaimed by a trumpet. At Mount Sinai God’s voice is compared to a trumpet blast. Actually, only one day, the Day of Atonement, was prescribed for fasting but there could be other days to commemorate some national disaster. Today our Ash Wednesday fills a similar role, a day when many of our churches are packed.

The people are asking God to come near. They are calling out for just laws. They want to have their fasting and their penances noticed by God. On the surface, they seem to be so religious, so pious and docile, but all the while they are neglecting to do what God really wants. “Why do we fast, and you do not see it? Afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it?” they ask plaintively.

God, through the voice of his prophet Isaiah, gives them a powerful response, one they hardly expected. Instead of praise, they get condemnation.

O yes, they fast all right but at the same time they keep “doing their own things”. They do business on their holy days and oppress their workers. They fast but at the same time quarrel and squabble and physically abuse the poor.

Is this what God wants? Is this real fasting and penance? Looking miserable, “hanging your head like a reed” in a show of abject humility, lying in the midst of sackcloth and ashes? Is it all these very pious acts that God cherishes and wants?

The kind of fast that the Lord wants is something altogether different. It is

releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke,
setting free the oppressed,
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.

These words were written thousands of years ago; in our enlightened age they still apply fully. They contain a proclamation that will be repeated by Jesus both in his words and actions. It is by doing these things that we will really be in the spirit of Lent. It is a lot more than keeping the fast and abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday or than giving up things like sweets or smoking.
+++ +++ +++ +++
Psalm 51
A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.
A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
For I acknowledge my offense,
and my sin is before me always:
“Against you only have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight.”
A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
For you are not pleased with sacrifices;
should I offer a burnt offering, you would not accept it.
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
+++ +++ +++ +++
Matthew 9:14-15

The disciples of John approached Jesus and said,
“Why do we and the Pharisees fast much,
but your disciples do not fast?”
Jesus answered them,
“Can the wedding guests mourn
as long as the bridegroom is with them?
The days will come
when the bridegroom is taken away from them,
and then they will fast.”


Today's Gospel more than once contrasts the lifestyle of Jesus with that of John the Baptist. In today’s passage we see the disciples of John the Baptist (John himself never questions anything that Jesus does) asking Jesus why they and the Pharisees fast regularly but his disciples do not.

The reason Jesus gave was because it was not normal to fast when the bridegroom was still around. He is the Bridegroom and, as long as he was present, it was a time for celebration. Fasting is a sign of mourning and would be as inappropriate at this time of joy, when Jesus is proclaiming the kingdom, as it would be at a marriage feast.

But there is more than that. Jesus in his life pointed his disciples to something deeper and more important than fasting, namely, reaching out in compassion to others bringing joy, comfort, healing into people’s lives. Fasting can be very self-centred, as in the case of the Pharisees. “See how holy I am!” (We saw that in the Gospel for Ash Wednesday.) Jesus expects more than that.

But Jesus does say that when the bridegroom is gone, when Jesus is no longer visibly present, his disciples will fast. At that time, it will be appropriate to fast as a sign of penance and purification. There is a place for asceticism and even penitential acts. The Church (and every other major religion) has recognized that over the centuries.

But it is the reaching out in caring love that is most important. Without that, fasting has no value.


Sarah in the tent said...

I think that, as he wrote these words, they must have been particularly poignant for St Matthew, the tax collector with whom Our Lord feasted in the company of sinners. He experienced great joy when Jesus entered his life, then mourning at His death, then joy at the resurrection and ascension, then lived the sort of faithful perseverence that is required for fasting.

Fr. John L. Sullivan said...

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, "Follow me." And he got up and followed him.

While he was at table in his (Matthew's) house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and his disciples.

The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?"

He heard this and said, "Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' I did not come to call the righteous but sinners." (Matthew 9:9-13)

The meaning of these words is clear: Jesus calls sinners to become his disciples to teach them how to become righteous. Those who call themselves "righteous" are in fact "self-righteous". They judge for themselves what is right and wrong, and we will see the consequence at the end of this holy season, when the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law condemn the Son of God for blasphemy.