Friday after Ash Wednesday

February 12, 2016

Friday after Ash Wednesday
Isaiah 58:1-9a and Matthew 9:14-15

Christians fast during the season of Lent, Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan, and Jews fast on Yom Kippur. But why do we fast? Although the language that these three major religions use to answer this question differs somewhat, all likely would say that we fast as a way of heightening our spiritual awareness, mourning over the brokenness of the world, and seeking reconciliation with God for ourselves and others.

Reflection on today’s scripture readings can help us wrestle with a related and perhaps more challenging question, “What does true fasting look like?” In the busyness of our lives, we can sometimes find ourselves focusing only on the externals of fasting, like “What am I going to make for dinner that doesn’t involve meat?” or, for those of us in our older years, regretting that we forgot what day it was when we sat down to lunch. And in our longing for God, some of us might fixate on rigidly following every regulation of fasting and still find our hearts empty.

In Isaiah 58, the prophet voices God’s complaint over the question, “What is true fasting?” He challenges the people who think that God should answer their prayers,because they go through the motions of keeping the fast, when along the way they treat their neighbors and co-workers badly. 

    “This is the fast, I require,” says God:
    Releasing those bound unjustly,
    untying the thongs of the yoke;
    Setting free the oppressed,
    breaking off every yoke…
    Sharing your bread with the hungry,
    bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house;
    Clothing the naked when you see them,
    and not turning your back on your own flesh (Isa 58:6-7).

Are we willing to embrace this kind of fasting? This is not an easy fast, because it requires opening ourselves to the suffering of the world and to the needs of the people around us, but the spiritual reward will be great. By making real the tender mercies of God in our everyday lives, we will realize, as the Gospel reading suggests, the intimate presence of Jesus, the bridegroom, in our hearts, and our mourning will be turned to unimaginable joy.

Dr. Catherine Cory
Chair, History Department
Director, Murray Institute