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.”
Isaiah’s exhortation is as important for us as it was for the Israelites. The goal of fasting is not simply to punish our bodies by limiting sensual pleasures. Simply depriving oneself of food and drink and of material comforts can lead to a certain smugness and self-righteousness. The true goal of fasting is to break excessive attachment to material gratification so our souls are more free to fulfill the purpose of our lives -- loving God and our neighbor. And we all need to fast; it is a universal human tendency to become attached to material and sensual gratification and to be cut off from the deeper yearnings of our hearts. By cutting back on sensual gratification we can restore balance in our lives.
Ignatius of Loyola puts it succinctly and simply: We human beings are created to praise reverence and serve God our Lord; all things on the face of the earth are created to help us fulfill our end; we must use them only to the extent they help us toward our end.
We have fasted well when our inordinate attachment to creature comforts is broken and our inner freedom is restored: ”Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer, you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!”
During Lent we fast and pray for the grace of inner freedom and deeper conversion of heart!
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