[Homily. First Friday. 4 March 2022]
The call of the Lenten Season is expressed in the words of the Lord, “Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping and mourning. Rend your hearts, not your garments.” (Jl 2:12-13). Central is the return of the heart. The repentant heart. The cleansed heart. “A clean heart create for me, God; renew in me a steadfast spirit. … My sacrifice, God, is a broken spirit… a broken humbled heart.” (Ps 51: 11.19).
On this First Friday of Lent, consider it but an appropriate response of our heart to the Heart of the Lord. The Lord never withdraws from us the love he manifested on the Cross. He never turns his love away from us. We turn away from him. In our “adulthood,” we turn away from him. Or, in our intense frivolousness, ignore him. We are too mature, too sophisticated, too entitled to stay with him. We lose the ability to approach him with the humility of his children.[i]
In the Season of Lent, fasting is an age-old expression of repentance from sin. Moved by the preaching of Jonah, Nineveh proclaimed a fast, repented from its sin; this moved the Lord to spare it its destruction. Jesus himself gave us instructions on how to fast. ”Do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. … Anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting. … Your Father who sees in secret will reward in secret” (cf. Mt 6:16-18). Unfortunately, even in the Lenten season, fasting is a religious practice, a sacred discipline, which we Catholics seem to have lost. It’s no longer required every day in Lent. In fasting, we become self-conscious, and get knotted up in what we are not eating; indeed, some of us fast not in order to win the battle against temptation and sin, but to win the battle against the bulge.
In fasting, we have much to learn from our Muslim sisters and brothers. I am always edified by their fidelity to their shared fast during Ramadan. Even when non-Muslims around them are eating with abandon, they do not break their fast. For them, Ramadan is a serious spiritual season for getting closer to Allah and to their loved ones. Their fast focuses on that.
The Prophet Isaiah today is telling us something important about the fasting we should be engaging in.
First, your fasting must signal something different in your lives. Lent and its recommended disciplines cannot mean nothing. Vestments turn purple and readings speak of conversion, but nothing changes. The corruption remains unchanged. The lying continues. Your vicious meanness continues to hurt. When the Israelites complained that their fasting seemed to have no effect, through Isaiah the Lord said, “Lo, on your fast day you [still] carry out your own pursuits, and drive all your laborers. Your fast ends with quarreling and fighting, striking with wicked claw” (Is. 58:4). You fast, but there is no conversion. You continue to overwork your laborers. You continue with your violent oppression. Your wicked ways remain unaffected. But the Lord is not interested in mere externalities: “That a man bows his head like a reed and lie in sackcloth and ashes” (Is 58:5), this is not a fast acceptable to the Lord.
Second, the Lord says what he wants in fasting. Not torn garments and the holocaust of sheep and oxen. “This rather is the fasting 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. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall be quickly healed. Your vindication shall go before you, and 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!” (Is. 58:5-9).
Here I am! Is being able to experience the presence and love of the Lord not worth fasting for? In opening oneself to a deeper appreciation of the Heart of the Crucified Lord by taking steps to correct the injustice being done to a person left by the wayside to die, by deciding to eat less just to become more aware that others need to eat more, by trying to understand with Pope Francis the social injustice of creating for ourselves beautiful, gated subdivisions securely walled off from the squalor of the urban poor’s shanties so that we don’t have to think of them in our lavish living, and by critiquing our own taste for clothes so exclusive, branded, and fashionable that they can only be worn once while others but wear and wear and wear. But contemplating the Heart of the Crucified Lord, does he not love us all equally? Does he not say, “Whatsoever you do or not do for one of these the least of my sisters and brothers, that you do or not do for me”(Mt. 25:40.45.)? What have we done to make the Heart of the Lord more felt in our heartless society?
Like in our current electoral contest. Elections and political life cannot be excluded from the Kingdom of God. From his Cross, the Lord’s Heart is beating, “Here I am.” Even during an election. He calls all to an examination of what the people in our society, created all in the image and likeness of God, really need. For instance, when their common home in a shared globe is acutely endangered. He calls for an examination of the abilities of the candidates to respond to those needs. He calls for a use of the vote in a manner that is consistent with our belief in him who says, “I have come to bring life, life to the full” (Jn 10:10). “I am the way, the life and the truth” (Jn 14:6). That we might return from lies, malevolent distortions of history, fake news and vote buying to the reign of the Lord, for this we must fast.
Even as we must fast for the liberation of the people of Ukraine, as well as of the people of Myanmar, the peoples of Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Palestine, Syria.
Jesus himself had to fast. The first Lent was his own battle with temptations in the desert where he fasted and prayed for forty days and forty nights against the temptation to turn his back on his mission and misuse his power. It was a battle which would continue through his conflict with the Jewish elders, the scribes and the Pharisees into his agony in Gethsemane. The outcome of his fasting was: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Mt 4:4). “You shall not put the Lord to the test” (Mt 4:7). “The Lord your God shall you worship and him alone shall you serve” (Mt 4:10). He fasted for freedom to do the will of his Father. The outcome were his words spoken in blood: “Not my will, thine be done” (Lk 22:42). For this, we too are invited to fast.
The call of the Lenten Season is to return to the Lord. It is to return our lives, our country and our globe back to the Lord reigning from the right hand of the Father through the mystery of his pierced Heart on the Cross. It is the insight and hope of the prodigal son: “Here I am dying in hunger. I shall get up and go back to my Father, and I shall say to him, ‘Father I have sinned against heaven and against you…’” (cf. Luke 15: 1-24, esp. 18). Seeing him approaching, it is the Father who runs to welcome him in his embrace.
[i] Cf. “Of Children, Adults and the Children of God”: