instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, February 23, 2007

What's done for Lent is done for eternity

Maybe it's just my guilty conscience, but there seems to be a lot of Lenten kickoff messages, on St. Blog's and elsewhere, to the effect that, "You're doing it all wrong." All this giving up stuff, all this penitential spirit, I'm told, misses the point of Lent.

There is, certainly, Scriptural support for the "doing it all wrong" argument. Joel's "Rend your hearts, not your garments," from Ash Wednesday's first reading, comes to mind, and even more to the point is today's first reading from Isaiah:
Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: That a man bow his head like a reed, and lie in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

This, rather, is the fasting that 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.
Those of us with a more literal cast of mind might be tempted to think, "Well, that's all to the good, of course, but I, ah, can't quite see how releasing those bound unjustly is exactly fasting as such."

In fact, on my reading, releasing those bound unjustly isn't fasting as such. Furthermore, fasting isn't fasting as such -- or rather, it's not fasting as wished by the LORD.

The dictionary meaning of "fasting" is "abstaining from food," but that's not the Scriptural meaning of the word. The Scriptural meaning adds the necessary motive of charity, an end achieved through abstaining from food without which the action as a whole is not the fasting God promises to reward -- and let's not treat the reward as boilerplate prophecy mumbo jumbo, either! If your fasting encompasses the above acts of mercy,
your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be 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!
When we abstain from food, we become empty. If we don't pay attention to what fills us back up, it's likely to be quarrelling and fighting, or whatever vices we carry within us. But if we become empty and then fill ourselves with love of our neighbor, our light shall break forth like the dawn.

So I suppose my Lenten kickoff message is not, "Don't waste your time with your low-carb penitence and your six-week preparation for Eastertide intemperance." It's this: By all means, go ahead with your plans. If your rule of penance happens to come from a low fat cookbook, that's fine, too. Only, please, every time you remember what you're doing for Lent, remember too why you're doing it.