Most of us start Lent asking ourselves, or being asked, what we will give up. This act of giving something up – a favorite food, a frivolous pastime or common distraction – is all many people know of Lent, and can broadly be categorized as fasting.
The practice of fasting is an ancient and important part of our Lenten journey, and can be a valuable tool in self-examination and prayer throughout the year. At the heart of Lent is the effort to identify those aspects of our life that separate us from God, and to set those aside. Whether it’s something as simple as giving up meat or coffee to focus our intentions on prayer, or something as monumental as setting aside fear and trusting in God, surrender is an irreplaceable part of Lent, and of our spiritual walk in general.
But, what are our motives when we fast? This day in Lent calls us to examine our very reasons for undertaking a fast, or for our outward displays of worship. Are our efforts undertaken with an inner sincerity of heart to build up the Kingdom of God? Or, are pride and self-centered interests at play?
The prophet Isaiah took up this question of sincerity vs. hypocrisy in Isaiah 58, posing these questions in the voice of the hypocrite: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Isaiah responds that the hypocrite fasts to be seen, all the while oppressing those around him: “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.”
This passage calls us into a critical examination of why we fast in Lent, and of the everyday choices we make all year. In a foretelling of Jesus’s admonition in Matthew 25 that we care for the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, poor and estranged, Isaiah lays out the direction in which we’re meant to steer our devotions when we fast:
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.
Isaiah draws a stark contrast here. In the first example the fast is self-centered and blind to, if not complicit in, the suffering and oppression in the world around the pious worshipper. In the second, the fast is not merely an internal religious exercise. It is an inward strengthening for outward action – action that advances a radical social justice that later will be the bedrock of the Gospel message.
Fasting, in Isaiah’s prophetic message, is not merely meant to signify us as the righteous, or even to sacrifice our sins to God. Grounding ourselves in our faith is essential – to build our strength. And separating ourselves from that which separates us from God is essential – to set our paths straight.
But these are only means of bettering ourselves toward the end – they are not the end in themselves. The end lies in serving our neighbor, in loving God by loving God’s children, and ushering in the Kingdom of God, where our “light shall break forth like the dawn.”
Lent is a time for us to kneel in penitence. We examine our hearts and seek to draw closer to God. That is all good, and necessary. But, Isaiah reminds us piety doesn’t exist for its own sake. It exists to strengthen us, so we can get off our knees and get to the work of being Christ’s hands and feet in the world.
Jesus echoes this call in Matthew 9, asking us to focus more on loving our neighbor than on offering pious sacrifices: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
As we continue our Lenten period of self-examination and penitence, then, let us not approach this season as an end unto itself. It is a period of spiritual respite and healing. It is a time of preparation, and strengthening. In this time we prepare ourselves for the temporal pain and the eternal glory we’re promised when we take up our cross and follow Christ. And, on the other side of this time of healing and preparation, we are called to act – to be the Body of Christ moving through this world.
Almighty God, who sent your Son Jesus as a perfect example for us to follow, and who has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide us in that pursuit, help us during this period of Lent to not only reflect on and turn from our sins, but to strengthen our resolve to take up your Word and serve your children, wherever we may find them. Amen.