Friday after Ash Wednesday
(Isaiah 58:1-9a; Matthew 9:14-15)
Abraham Lincoln’s “Second Inaugural Address” has been acclaimed as his greatest speech. Yet it criticizes the nation in a way that would be unthinkable today. It says, “(God) gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.” This means that as both northern and southern states profited by slavery, God has now punished both sides. But the speech goes beyond recalling the sins of the nation. It also hints of reform by indicating the resolve to settle the costs of the war “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” However so much the “Second Inaugural” demonstrates Lincoln’s skill as an orator, it shows him as a prophet in line with Isaiah in today’s first reading.
The prophet declares God’s frustration with the offerings of the people. He sees them as manipulative of God’s love, not submissive to God’s dominion. He chastises the people for quarrelling over whose sacrifice is sufficient rather than showing communal remorse for sins committed. But the tenor of the prophecy is ultimately not negative. It also describes the sacrifice that pleases God. It calls the people beyond individual displays of asceticism to communal solidarity with the suffering.
We might ask ourselves then if any fasting is desirable. The answer to the query should be self-evident. Not only does the Church prescribe an acceptable fast for Lent, but Jesus indicates its appropriateness in today’s gospel. But we must remember not to fast to show off individual ability to endure hardship. No, we fast to recognize our common need for God’s mercy.