Friday after Ash Wednesday
(Isaiah 58:1-9a; Matthew 9:14-15)
Fifty years ago every Catholic adult was supposed to fast every day of Lent. The fast consisted of not eating more than one full meal a day, not eating between meals, and not taking meat more than once a day except on Friday when it was completely prohibited. Probably because many began flouting the fast and others scorned the backsliders, the practices were abandoned in 1966 in favor of the much lighter fast the Church imposes today.
Christians fast for several reasons. As with Jesus in the desert, fasting prepares us for a religious mission. It focuses our attention on what must be done and recognizes the need for God’s assistance. During Lent our focus is renewal in the Spirit that comes at Easter. Fasting also brings us in solidarity with the poor by experiencing their want of food and also by freeing up resources that might be shared with them. Finally, it serves as an outer sign of inner affection for the Lord as when a lover will sacrifice a free night to accompany his beloved to the library.
In the reading from Isaiah today, the prophet excoriates the people for undermining the purpose of fasting. Rather than disposing them to care more deeply, fasting serves the people as a subterfuge for their greed. Because It has made the Jews more sanctimonious than saintly and more corrupt than compassionate, Isaiah wants to alter the rules. The desired fast will no longer be so much what the Jews give up but what they give. They must feed the hungry and release the unjustly imprisoned. Only then will God accept their self-denial as legitimate expressions of love.