16 February – Friday after Ash Wednesday
Thus says the Lord: Shout for all you are worth, raise your voice like a trumpet. Proclaim their faults to my people, their sins to the House of Jacob.
They seek me day after day, they long to know my ways, like a nation that wants to act with integrity and not ignore the law of its God.
They ask me for laws that are just, they long for God to draw near: ‘Why should we fast if you never see it, why do penance if you never notice?’
Look, you do business on your fast-days, you oppress all your workmen; look, you quarrel and squabble when you fast and strike the poor man with your fist.
Fasting like yours today will never make your voice heard on high. Is that the sort of fast that pleases me, a truly penitential day for men?
Hanging your head like a reed, lying down on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call fasting, a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the sort of fast that pleases me – it is the Lord who speaks – to break unjust fetters and undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke, to share your bread with the hungry, and shelter the homeless poor,
to clothe the man you see to be naked and not turn from your own kin? Then will your light shine like the dawn and your wound be quickly healed over.
Your integrity will go before you and the glory of the Lord behind you. Cry, and the Lord will answer; call, and he will say, ‘I am here.’
John’s disciples came to Jesus and said, ‘Why is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not?’ Jesus replied, ‘Surely the bridegroom’s attendants would never think of mourning as long as the bridegroom is still with them? But the time will come for the bridegroom to be taken away from them, and then they will fast.’
“Why do we fast, and you do not see it?”
I recently overheard a conversation between two people about fasting during the Lenten period. They had been debating as to the right way to fast, and what one should abstain from. It got me thinking about my own plan for fasting and abstinence and if I had been doing it right at all.
For those of us who have been wondering, as I have, today’s readings address our (mis)conceptions on the practice. I have an acquaintance who used to tell me what he would do during Lent, and having said it rather matter-of-factly, I – being new to the faith at the time – naively thought it was pretty admirable. With some enlightenment however, I realise and hold till this day, that our fasting and abstinence is like prayer — a conversation and commitment between our own selves and God. What we do, we do for God, and not for anyone else. Our strength for this period comes from God; our wanting to be better for Him, and our love for Him – and, in return, His love for us – will provide us with the necessary strength to see it through. Our penance during abstinence may also be a big sacrifice for us, requiring considerable effort on our part, but just as our commitment to God is only between us and Him, so too is our sacrifice. It does not need reminding, for God knows, and it doesn’t need pats on the back from anyone. God will provide us the encouragement we need.
God reminds us as well in today’s readings that fasting should not just be for ourselves, but OF ourselves, i.e. we set aside our personal needs for others. I do not mean this to imply that we have been selfish people; rather we learn to put others’ needs before ours, a service to others. As Christians, we are not truly disciples of Jesus until we learn to serve as Jesus did, not because we should but because we are spurred on by brotherly/sisterly love for one another. As Gospel says, “The greatest among you will be your servant” (Matthew 23:11).
Jesus also implies in today’s Gospel reading that we should fast, not because religious practice demands it of us, but because his absence causes us great sorrow: “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” Absence makes the heart fonder, evidencing the sincerity of our feelings for a person; likewise with Jesus. Our fast should come from the heart, because we yearn for Christ in our empty hearts. When we empty ourselves fully and sincerely, only then are we able to receive Christ in full measure.
(Today’s Oxygen by Annette Soo)
Prayer: Lord, we pray for encouragement during this Lenten period. Strengthen us when we are weak, and help us to remain steadfast in this journey of Lent.
Thanksgiving: Thank you Lord, for staying by us. Our journey would not be possible without You. Our sacrifice is nothing compared to Your sacrifice for us. May our penance be sufficient to make us whole again with You.