Friday, February 28, 2020

Lent 2020: Look at Me! Look at Me!

At Ash Wednesday Mass, our priest got a good chuckle out of the congregation when he talked about our fasting. Catholics are asked to fast on two days during Lent -- Ash Wednesday, at the beginning, and Good Friday, near the end -- and also to refrain from eating red meat on all Fridays. Our Gospel reading on Ash Wednesday had Jesus telling his followers not to make a public spectacle of their fasting and praying, like the hypocrites do, expecting praise for their actions. So what you don't want to do, Father told us, is to go about your day doubled over in misery, and when someone asks you what's wrong, you answer, breathlessly, "I'm Catholic ... fasting ... don't know if I'm gonna make it."

Fasting, in the words of St. Symeon the New Theologian, is an action that, when performed in the proper spirit, "penetrates and softens hardness of heart." If there's no effort at transformation, there's no point. As Sirach 34:26 states, "A man who fasts for his sins, but then goes and commits them again: Who will hear his prayer, and what has he gained by his mortification?"

Sacrifice for its own sake is all well and good, but does it change who we are, or are we only trying to appease God, in hopes he might have mercy on us? As God tells us in Psalm 50:
I have no complaint about your sacrifices or the burnt offerings you constantly offer.
But I do not need the bulls from your barns or the goats from your pens.
For all the animals of the forest are mine, and I own the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know every bird on the mountains, and all the animals of the field are mine.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for all the world is mine and everything in it.
Do I eat the meat of bulls? Do I drink the blood of goats?
Make thankfulness your sacrifice to God, and keep the vows you made to the Most High.
Then call on me when you are in trouble, and I will rescue you, and you will give me glory.
God already owns the animals that the faithful placed on the altar. The point was never to appease God with meat he wouldn't eat, but to sacrifice something of value to the owner, and in turn to soften the giver's heart, to open the giver to the potential for change that a personally significant sacrifice might stir in his or her heart.

The goal is to humble ourselves so that we might carry out God's will. And what is God's will? Christ reminded us all the time during his ministry that we are to love God and neighbor -- and that, more than anything, takes the form of caring for God's children who are most in need. We see it in today's first reading, from Chapter 58 of Isaiah:
Tell my people Israel of their sins! Yet they act so pious. They come to the temple every day and seem delighted to learn all about me. They act like a righteous nation that would never abandon the laws of God. They ask me to take action on their behalf, pretending they want to be near me. "We have fasted before you!" they say. "Why aren't you impressed? We have been very hard on ourselves. and you don't even notice it?"
That's where the words of our priest from Ash Wednesday ring out. "Look what I'm doing by fasting! Surely this will score me some God points." It's no different from when the pious Pharisee stood in the temple and proclaimed to all who could hear how holy he was, and how much he gave to the temple, and thanked God that he wasn't a lowly sinner like the tax collector who stood behind him.

Our passage from Isaiah goes on, as God sets the people straight:
"I will tell you why!" I respond. "It's because you are fasting to please yourselves. Even while you fast, you keep oppressing your workers. What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me. You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like reeds bending in the wind. You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what they call fasting? Do you really think this will please the Lord?"  
"No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. Then your salvation will come like the dawn, and your wounds will quickly heal. Your Godliness will lead you forward, and the glory of the Lord will answer." 
The best fast we can undertake, in other words, is to fast from injustice and oppression. To be the hands and feet of the merciful Christ in this world. More to the point: Fasting that doesn't incorporate social justice is useless.

When we see self-proclaimed Christians lamenting the corrupt state of the world on one hand, but sneering at the poor and needy on the other hand, is it any wonder why God doesn't hear their cries? We reap what we sow. As Jesus himself said, "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord' and not do as I say?"

Likewise, God asks in Psalm 50: "Why bother reciting my decrees and pretending to obey my covenant? For you refuse my discipline and treat my words like trash."

All he wants from us, as Micah 6:8 reminds us, is to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with him. The real point of our Lenten sacrifices is to conform ourselves to that vision that God has for us. May we all find it within ourselves this season to open our hearts to our brothers and sisters, to empty ourselves of our selfish ambitions and misguided righteousness, and to humble ourselves before the will of God.

(Special thanks to Magnificat, without whom today's entry would not have been possible.)

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