Friday February 11, 2005 Friday After Ash Wednesday
Reading (Isaiah 58:1-9a) Gospel (St. Matthew 9:14-15)
In both of the readings today, we hear about fasting. Now fasting is critically important for our spiritual lives; it goes hand in hand with the prayer and the almsgiving. If we really want to grow in prayer, it is going to require self-denial. As we hunger for the food that we are lacking, it leads us then to a greater spiritual hunger if we can take that hunger and translate it into a spiritual means; but, at the same time, it needs to end in something that is even greater in the way that we live our lives.
We hear in the first reading about the kind of fasting that was being done by some of the Israelites. They are wondering why, if they sit there in sackcloth and ashes, God was not hearing their prayers; and the Lord says, It is because of the way that you act when you fast. If you are driving your laborers, if you are striking people, if you are angry, if you are being mean, if you are being selfish, what good is fasting? If it is leading you to be uncharitable and more selfish then it is having exactly the opposite effect of what it is supposed to do. The idea of fasting is self-denial. The idea of fasting is hungering for God. If what it is doing instead is making us edgy and angry and mean and selfish, then it is doing exactly the opposite of what was intended.
The Lord is telling us that we need to fast, but that it needs to be in the proper manner. If we are going to be fasting, it needs to end up in greater virtue. That is what we have to focus on. If all we focus on is the fasting, then we are going to think we are doing something heroic just because we are allowing ourselves to feel hunger. And if that is all we are focused on, it is not going to come out in a good way. But if our focus is on the Lord, then the fasting will actually have a greater effect. The fasting is not an end in itself; it is merely a means to something else. So what we need to look at is not merely the fasting, which is a very easy thing to do. When you are feeling hungry, it is very easy to focus on your own self; it is very easy, of course, to focus specifically on the belly; and as Saint Paul comments to some, Their gods are their bellies and their glory is in their shame. That is not what we want. What we want is for the focus not to be on the belly but on the heart, to be on the Lord not on the self, and to be on virtue rather than on any kind of vice.
And so if we are going to be fasting, which the Lord tells us we need to do the Bridegroom has been taken from us, so we need to fast; this is not something which is merely optional to us our fasting needs to have a proper focus, it has to have a right purpose, and it has to end in greater holiness. That is something all of us can look at, and I suspect we will see quite easily how it is being done. Is our fasting ending up in being angry? in being mean? in ripping into people? in being more selfish? Or is our fasting ending up in deeper prayer? in greater virtue? in more charity? in a more profound holiness? The Lord is looking for the good to come out of fasting, so if we are focused merely on our own bellies, or if we are focused merely on the fasting as an end in itself, then it is going to end in something that is not good. But if we are focused on why we are fasting we are offering it to the Lord and we are seeking Him then our fasting is going to have a very good end. That will be very evident in our own lives, not only to ourselves but especially to the people around us. I am sure if you are married that your spouse will be very quick to help you see whether or not your fasting is having a proper end because it is the people right around you who will notice most easily how you are acting and whether there is greater charity or not. That is the way we need to be able to gauge the quality of our fasting. The Lord makes very clear in Isaiah that the kind of fasting He wishes is to get rid of injustice and any lack of charity, and if we are not then our fasting is not going to be pleasing to the Lord because it is either being done for the wrong reason or because our focus is not where it belongs. So our focus in fasting needs to remain on Christ, on a spiritual hunger more than on a physical hunger, and uniting ourselves to Christ through greater prayer and virtue.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording with minimal editing.