March 8, 2019
by Dennis Hamm, S.J.
Creighton University's Department of Theology
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

Praying Lent

First Four Days of Lent - 23 min.
- Text Transcript

What Is Fasting and Abstinence?

Remembering the Ashes

Isaiah 58

Cooking Lent
Recipes for all the Fridays of Lent

Was Jesus pro-fasting or contra-fasting? As with all smart people, for him it depended on the context.

Today’s first reading from Isaiah 58 is about God’s attitude about fasting, and about context. The Mosaic Law mandated fasting on the Day of Atonement, serious fasting, nothing into the mouth from sun-up to sun-down, once a year. But then, people often fasted to express their grief over someone’s death, when you don’t feel much like eating anyway. But in describing Jesus’ sense of his career change from craftsman to prophet with a mission, Luke reports that Jesus, while reading from Isaiah 61, makes a point of including a line from Isaiah 58:6--“I have been sent …  to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” And when we look up that verse, we discover why that addition was important to Jesus, or at least to Luke.  For in this chapter the prophet, speaking for the Lord God, gives a quite specific context.

The people of God have been complaining to God, “Why do we fast and you do not see it?” To quote further:

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 wicked claw.
Would that today you might fast
so as to make your voice heard on high!

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 oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own.

Let us pray:

Lord, Jesus. These words of Isaiah seem like a distant mirror reflecting our own age. Two days ago, on Ash Wednesday, we fasted and received ashes on our forehead, each of us, no doubt, with a different set of motives in this public display of faith. Help us to hear Isaiah’s words afresh. If any of us has exercised these religious practices, preoccupied more with concern for self-image or “earning points” with you, please liberate us from such self-imposed (or culture-imposed) restrictions. If we have neglected to reach out to our fellow human beings (hungry, homeless, naked), while bearing ashes and fasting (signs of shared mortality and of dependence on you for the gift of food) please heal us from this bondage. If “quarreling and fighting” characterizes much of our public and private life, God, save us. Let your kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven. Send us your Spirit to enable us to cooperate with your merciful intentions.  “Thy kingdom come!”

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