Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? (Isaiah 58.6)
It’s Ash Wednesday. Once more we find our way to an altar, where we bow in humility and rise from our knees bearing a visible sign of repentance. As always, there will be a lot of thought and conversation today about what we’re “giving up” for Lent. We will leave the Ash Wednesday rite with the best of intentions and spend the next few weeks struggling to honor them.
To be sure, there is merit in self-denial. It teaches us discipline and retrains us so that we can master unhealthy reflexes and habits. Yet what’s supposed to come out of fasting? In Isaiah, we discover that it’s less about what we elect not to do, and more about relearning what we must do. In Isaiah 58, God says our piety and ritual—our subscription to religious obligation—mean nothing if they don't alert us to sacred obligations to those around us.
Sacrificing meat or candy bars or TV is, at best, a start. We do these things to keep us mindful that fasting is, above all, an act of faithfulness to a God Who desires meaningful change in our attitudes and behaviors. Yet if Lent starts and stops with what we’re “giving up,” we’ve not gone far enough. “Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high,” God warns. “Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?” (v4-5)
There’s a break in the text, making room for us ask, “If there’s more to this fasting thing than getting off our high horses and wallowing in our guilt, what can it be?” The answer is remarkably simple and direct: God expects our fast to focus on doing better in the here and now—not feeling sorry that we haven’t done so in the past or pledging improvement in the future. Listen very closely to God’s definition of an acceptable fast (quoted at length, because its emphasis cannot be overstated):
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindication shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and God will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
If we enter Lent’s desert intent only on adopting an ascetic mindset—grappling with self-denial and its attendant temptations, distancing ourselves from others to relish the benefits of solitude—we fall short of God’s demands. The Hebrew word for “fast” literally means, “to cover one’s mouth.” Thus, it stands to reason if we refuse to placate our hungers, we have more to give. What are we to do with our excess—this food we don’t eat, this extra time we have on our hands, these comforts we sacrifice? God tells us: we surrender them to others in need.
We enter Lent on high alert, extremely conscious that our wilderness adventure will open opportunities to share. Indeed, if we’re doing the real work of fasting, we seek out the less fortunate, the hungry, the afflicted, and the oppressed. We create the means of practicing Lent’s discipline. We look for distressed families we can feed. We extend ourselves to overworked parents and provide them respite by offering to sit with their children while they recharge their batteries. We seek out solitary coworkers or churchgoers and sit beside them. We find the senior who needs help cleaning up the house or running errands. We make time for the sick and grieving among us, assuring them they’re not alone. We embrace the ridiculed and misunderstood. We speak kindly to ears bruised by insults and cruelty. We touch the untouchable and love the unlovable.
We are surrounded by fasting opportunities.
We leave our comfort zones, because fasting should make us uncomfortable. It thrusts us into a desert of strangeness and uncertainty. It tests our wills and purifies our motives, leading us beyond the desire to be holy so that we become holy. Fasting has very little to do with what or how much we “give up.” It’s all about what or how much we give. And if we center our Lenten experience intent on caring for others, our wilderness will explode with new and abundant life.
Your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. (Isaiah 58.10-11)