15 February. Friday after Ash Wednesday
Isa 58:1ff. Authentic religion (“True fasting”) is contrasted with merely external observance.
Mt 9:14ff. Jesus predicts fasting in the future, when the bridegroom has left this world.
First Reading: Isaiah 58:1-9
Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bullrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
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 to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator 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 he will say, Here I am.
Gospel: Matthew 9:14-15
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.
The people were doubtless incensed when accused by Isaiah of rebelling against God. They saw themselves as eager in religious practice. They fast, but then they oppress their workers. The stern prophet assures them that they are practicing their religion not to please God, but to please themselves. Their observance has become mere ritual, mere activity, something they are doing for themselves. On the days they fast, they end up arguing and fighting.
Today, we too can fall into this. Many may see their relationship with God as a once-a-week commitment. Sometimes when we go to church, we demand that it be a time that caters entirely to ourselves. We become wrapped up in our own concerns, not those of God our Maker. Now, helped by the prophet, we seek the penance that God has chosen for us in Lent. It’s not a time to indulge oneself, but a time to think of others. The fasting God has chosen is a time to clothe the naked, to right injustices, to feed the hungry, and to take in those that do not have a home. It is to love my neighbor as truly as my own self. As always, the Word is here to help and guide us.
Jesus alludes to the practice of fasting which will develop in his church after he has gone – but lays no great emphasis upon it. It’s one of the many areas where Christians need to make up their own minds about what practices to adopt. The main thing is to find ways that will help us be open to God in our hearts.