What does it mean to fast? Dictionary.com defines fast as “to abstain from all food”, or in a religious sense, “to eat only sparingly or of certain kinds of food”. Today is a day of abstinence, or fasting, in that we choose not to eat meat, but more in the spirit of the discipline, to eat more simply as well. One might not consider lobster to be meat, and so they feel fine in going to a nice restaurant and feasting on lobster. But to do so, I think, misses the point.
The first reading refers to the type of fast that would see eating a fine lobster dinner as a fast. In Isaiah’s reading, the writer notes that people are upset because God does not notice there fasting and suffering. Remember the reading on Ash Wednesday when Jesus chastises those who wish to do penance, to pray, to give alms, to fast, only in order to be noticed. God makes note of the fact that whether or not they are fasting or suffering, those who complain are not changing their lives. “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.”
Whatever penitential practices we undertake, they are always to serve a higher purpose. It is not simply a test of willpower, to see if we can go without candy, or desserts, for these alone do not accomplish much. Nor is it something that is only to debase ourselves, to wallow in our sinfulness. Isaiah rejects this too, for the Lord says, “Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: That a man bow his head like a reed and lie in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?” Rather, we engage in penitential practices only to the degree that these practices help us to grow in faith. If we are not becoming closer to Jesus, and by extension, kinder in our actions towards others, then our penitential practices are not healthy.
Authentic penitential practices, or Lenten devotions, focus our attention more keenly on what grace is available to us, so that we live as the persons we were created to be. We must recognize, especially if we have been greatly blessed, that we who have been given much are expected to do much as well. What does our fasting lead us to do? Are we fighters and quarrelers, focusing on our own pursuits? Or, are we those who become ever more attentive to the needs of our brothers and sisters?
This second type of fasting is desired:
“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.”
So, what does your fasting lead to?