Is 58:1-9 talks about fasting and prepares the way for Jesus. Fasting is much more than an external practice. It is a practice of the heart. In Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton discusses things which get in the way of contemplative prayer—alcohol, television, and unchastity. His point is that we need to purify our hearts. We need to remove from our lives the obstacles to union with God. We need to move from the false self into the true self which reflects the image of God within our hearts. Few Christians seem to be aware of St. Paul’s condemnation of greed. Certainly, in these troubling financial times, Merton would have added greed to the list. All too often we fall into consumerism and amass goods and creature comforts at the expense of others. Yes, we save at Wal-Mart and text on our IPhones but who pays the real price? People who work for substandard wages in sweatshops in far away countries pay the price. Nature pays the price when retailers sell too many fish from endangered species. We pay the price when we eat arm-bred shrimp and salmon that are produced in contaminated waters.
Isaiah is also making it clear that we can fast and afflict ourselves and still not earn God’s presence. Why? Because we cannot earn it. God’s presence to us is pure gift. God is present to us just because we are. Contemplative prayer places us in God’s presence where he can speak to the ear of our hearts, as Benedict would say. We show up and we are present to the Presence.
Commenting on this passage from Isaiah on the Creighton Daily Reflection pages, Dick Hauser, SJ, wrote:
Isaiah does indeed condemn the fasting he observes among the elites of Israel. In no uncertain terms he declares that their fasting is worthless because it is a mere external observance and does not seem to reach the level of their hearts: “Lo, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits, and drive all your laborers. Yes, your fast ends in quarreling and fighting, striking with the wicked claw.”
But Isaiah wants to set the record straight. He exhorts the Israelites to fast but to fast in a manner that leads to conversion of heart — to compassion: “This rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.” (http://onlineministries.creighton.edu/CollaborativeMinistry/031111.html)
Contemplative prayer always leads to compassion and appropriate action. Buddhists speak of prajna and karuna. Wisdom and compassion are the cornerstones of spiritual existence. Wisdom and compassion teach us that we do not live life on the backs of those we oppress.
The fast God wants of us this Lent is an interior fasting that results in alleviating human misery. Untie the yokes. Release those who are bound unjustly in the economic wars. The tragic earthquake in Haiti made us aware of the toll economic war has taken on that island nation over the years. (Incidentally, Gandhi believes that the economic wars are as deadly as shooting wars.) Set free the oppressed. Break every yoke. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Shelter the homeless. John Chrysostom says:
Indeed the soul should not only turn to God at times of explicit prayer. Whatever we are engaged in, whether it is care for the poor, or some other duty, or some act of generosity, we should remember God and long for God. The love of God will be as salt is to food, making our actions into a perfect dish to set before the Lord of all things. Then it is right that we should receive the fruits of our labors, overflowing onto us through all eternity, if we have been offering them to him throughout our lives. (De precatione).
Jesus (Mt 9:14-15) picks up where Isaiah leaves off. He is openly challenging the purity and debt codes which the religious leaders used to oppress and control the people. Fasting will be necessary at some point in time for the reasons listed above. But, as Jesus speaks, he is present. He is proclaiming the Kin-dom. He is inviting all to the inclusive and festive table. Jesus too wants the fasting of the heart—liberating the oppressed, setting free the captives, giving sight to the blind, proclaiming a year of Jubilee debt relief, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the homeless, caring for the sick and visiting the imprisoned.
Today we have a dramatic example that the cultural values many of us adopt as Americans are not Gospel values. TEA Party politics has ushered in a fiscal reform movement that cuts the safety net of the least among us. Are we willing to stand up and proclaim the values espoused by Isaiah and Jesus? Or will we be shrinking violets before the maddening crowd?
There is a place for fasting, prayer and almsgiving—our Lenten practices of the heart. These practices liberate us. They set us free of the false acquisitive self. They open our spirits to the love of God. We cast out fear and place our trust in God. I like to think of contemplative prayer as “I show up and I trust in God to show up.” We must fast, pray and give alms in order to empty our false selves and make room for the true selves in the depths of our being where we encounter the tremendous love of God. Let us celebrate Jesus’ presence to us and, at the same time, discipline ourselves, to open to him more fully. We truly live in the person, power and presence of the Risen Jesus. Muslims fast during Ramadan as we fast during Lent in order to feel the plight of the least among us. Meditate on Rumi’s [Muslim Sufi mystic] poem “”Fasting:”
There’s hidden sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness.
We are lutes, no more, no less. If the soundbox
is stuffed full of anything, no music.
If the brain and belly are burning clean
with fasting, every moment a new song comes out of the fire.
The fog clears, and new energy makes you
run up the steps in front of you.
Be emptier and cry like reed instruments cry.
Emptier, write secrets with the reed pen.
When you’re full of food and drink, Satan sits
where your spirit should, an ugly metal statue
in place of the Kaaba. When you fast,
good habits gather like friends who want to help.
Fasting is Solomon’s ring. Don’t give it
to some illusion and lose your power,
but even if you have, if you’ve lost all will and control,
they come back when you fast, like soldiers appearing
out of the ground, pennants flying above them.
A table descends to your tents,
Expect to see it, when you fast, this table
spread with other food, better than the broth of cabbages.
When we fast, “new songs come out of the fire.” We will be strengthened as on eagles’ wings to live the “hidden sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness” in service to all our brothers and sisters. Jesus gave two mandates at the Last Supper—do Eucharist in memory of me and wash one another’s feet. Liturgical celebration and service to others = the Gospel. This is Good news for every person.