March 3, 2017
by Craig Zimmer
Creighton University's Campus Ministry
click here for photo and information about the writer

Friday after Ash Wednesday
Lectionary: 221

Isaiah 58:1-9a
Psalms 51:3-4, 5-6ab, 18-19
Matthew 9:14-15

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Pope Francis on True Fasting as Helping Others

On Ash Wednesday, we heard about the HOW of fasting, and we return to that theme today.  Maybe more specifically we’re talking about how not to fast.  We are reminded that we shouldn’t carry ourselves in a way that ensures that everyone around us knows we are fasting or making a sacrifice of some kind or serving others in some way.  Fasting for the sake of being noticed completely misses the point, so the message about the HOW of fasting is pretty clear.

Today we go a step further, though, and we also hear about the WHAT of fasting.  I have always thought of fasting as refraining from eating certain things, for my own spiritual benefit, but Isaiah turns that on its head.  The sacrifice called for here is not focused on me or my vertical relationship with God.  Instead, we are challenged to make sacrifices in the service of others.  Here again, the message about the WHAT of fasting is pretty clear.

There remains a question that I can’t shake in looking at these readings, however, and I think it underlies the other two.  This question is the WHY of fasting.  This is important both in Lent and throughout our lives as people of faith.  Do I fast, pray, serve and support others in hopes of being noticed?  Do I do it because I think I will be rewarded in some way, whether immediately or down the road?  Do I do it because I want people to think I am holy or generous or important?  These are important questions to ask and Lent offers us a time to ask them of ourselves very pointedly and intentionally.

If I’m being honest with myself, the answer to these questions is sometimes, “Yes, absolutely.  No doubt about it.”  Sometimes my motives are self-serving and I want people to notice me doing good things.  I want to be seen as caring or important.  This is to be expected of all of us, of course, because we are human.  But the important thing is to keep asking ourselves these questions, each day and in everything we do.  And this finally brings us to today’s Gospel reading.  We are not asked or expected to be in mourning, to be somber or melancholy so that everyone knows we are sacrificing something of ourselves.  Rather, we sacrifice and serve with quiet joy and with generous gratitude.  WHY?  Because when we recognize that God is with us and has freely given everything to us, even our very selves, then we are able to share and to serve out of our gratitude.  If that can become our WHY this Lent, we’ll have taken an enormous step along the journey to true fasting, sacrifice, and service.

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