“I said, I will confess my sins unto the Lord; and so thou forgavest the wickedness of my sin. For this shall everyone that is godly make his prayer unto thee, in a time when thou mayest be found.” Psalm 32: 6-7
Lent is the pre-eminent fast in the Liturgical calendar. It is so famous that these days even non-Catholics are taking part in it. According to Buzzfeed and other sources on the internet, it even reached meme status with the creation of the “ashtag.” Under this clever play on words, people began to take selfies with their ash-marked foreheads and post them to social media. Whether you participated or approved this practice, it was interesting to see just how many people took pride in their ashes and were actively part of the Ash Wednesday services.
What Fasting Should Do
In the midst of all this, however, it’s easy to forget the point of those ashes. And yet the bible readings for the day very explicitly talk about what exactly we’re doing during our period of fasting. The prophet Isaiah is exhorted by God to speak to those who are participating in fasts, to tell them exactly what God expects their fasting to do.
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” Isaiah 58:6-7 NIV
The Lenten fast should accomplish all these things. We deny ourselves a bit of our own pleasure in order to give perspective on life. When we forgo sweets, we can think of people who have never had the opportunity to taste them or to eat three square meals a day. If we give up a product made with sweat-shop labor, then perhaps we’re doing something to give people freedom and better working conditions. If we eat less, maybe we have more to share with the homeless and the hungry. Instead of just fasting, maybe we can add charity work at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter.
Because people less fortunate than ourselves are rightly OUR OWN FLESH AND BLOOD. Yes, we fast for our own penitence and to reap rewards for our own soul, and fasting will do that. But it can do so much for others when enacted in an unselfish manner.
What It Shouldn’t Do
In the same chapter of Isaiah, God criticizes the people who are fasting selfishly. In verse 4, he says, “You fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness.” There’s no good coming out of their fasting. In a self-centered manner, they expect to do this so God will see it and think well of them. But it isn’t going to work. God tells them, “You shall not fast as you do this day to make your voice to be heard on high.”
Only when we fast with the good of others in mind will it do any good, either for us or them, as it says in verse 10. It’s the Golden Rule in action. And indeed, this is the entire point of Christianity in a nutshell and it’s why Jesus called it the greatest commandment. Yes, the selfies are cool, but are they helping anyone?
Searching and Finding
The Lenten fast is supposed to be a journey towards God, a deepening of faith and a discovery of a relationship between us and Christ. But it is clear that none of that is possible if we go about it the wrong way. Selfishness is the worst enemy of faith and it can only be fought with charity. That’s why Isaiah tells us that we should be working for others in our fasting. It’s the only way for fasting to do its work – to bring us closer to God.
In this penitential season, we’re all looking for redemption. But it should not just be for ourselves. We should work for redemption for others. Redemption from circumstances, from oppression, from need and sadness. The psalmist talks about “a time when God may be found.” This is that time. And as always, we know where to go. To the least of Jesus’ brethren. In the simplicity of living the Golden Rule through our actions towards others, we find Christ. And, with God’s help, redemption from our sins.