Lenten Fast

2.16.17  Fri. after Ash Wed. – Lent
1 st Reading – Isaiah  58: 1 – 9a
Gospel  of  Mathew  9:  14 – 15

The disciples of John approached †Jesus  and said, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast much, but your disciples do not fast?”  †Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.        The Gospel of the Lord


Homily:  Fr. Mike Murphy                                Lenten Fast

In our first reading from the Prophet Isaiah the Israelites act as though they had done God a great favor.  “Why do we fast and you do not see it?” (Is. 58:3)  It is as if they wanted a trophy for this great sacrifice of theirs.  And the Lord responds to them that they have just done what was expected of them, the minimum (and they probably didn’t do it that well in the first place).   The people believed that fasting from food was worthy of great blessings of the Lord.

How many of us do the same thing?  Lord, “I did not eat any meat today, now here’s what you can do for me”.  (It’s  quid pro quo with the Lord.)  But God spells out for the Israelite people what really is worthy fasting.  He says: “Releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke, setting free the oppressed…sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and homeless, clothing the naked when you see them”. (Is.58: 6-8)

In the Gospel, we found that the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees had forgotten that lesson.  They ask †Jesus why His disciples do not fast?  They think that the kind of fasting they are doing is note-worthy and deserving of recognition.  What made John the Baptist such a great man, was not his diet of locust and wild honey (his fasting in the desert).  What made John the Baptist a great man was his obedience to God’s will.  John’s disciples seem to have forgotten that.

According to Sister Ruth Burrows: “True fasting is the outward sign of a heart utterly sincere in its desire for God.  Fasting from our own self-will our self-seeking.  These are the practical ways in which we express our desire to be all for God”. (Sister Ruth Burrows, Living Love: Meditations on the New Testament; Dimension Books, Inc., 199; p.40)  The fasting that God desires is to deny ourselves those things that are barriers to being His presence in the world – being more loving – more compassionate, and more generous.  That’s the kind of people we want to be.  And fasting from food doesn’t necessarily do that.  (In my case, fasting from food makes me angry, gives me headaches and you don’t want to be around me.)  We are called to live in relationship with †Jesus, and our private lives must reflect that relationship.

St. Basil the Great was a 4th century Apostolic Father and he wrote: “Take heed that you do not make fasting to consist only in abstinence from meat, true fasting is to refrain from vice, shred to pieces all your unjust contracts, pardon your neighbors, forgive them their trespasses”.

The fasting that the Lord desires is a fast from bitterness and holding on to a grudge.  If you are holding on to a grudge these days, that’s the kind of fasting the Lord wants – to let it go!  It is to feed our heart with the grace of forgiveness.

Remember the older brother in the parable of ‘The Prodigal Son’.  The elder brother did everything right.  He did not take his father’s inheritance, he did not squander it on dissolute living, he no doubt took all the Jewish feasts and fasts while he remained at home with dad.  He remained there and worked hard around the farm.  But, what kept him outside the banquet was his unforgiving heart.  He could not forgive his younger brother.  “A bitter unforgiving heart is just as much a blockage to entering God’s House as is any moral transgression.  We could be scrupulously faithful and still find ourselves standing outside of God’s House and outside the circle of community… because of a bitter heart.” (Fr. Ron Rolheiser, Sacred Fire; Image Books, N.Y. 2014; p.52) Sanctity is fueled by gratitude and we show gratitude to God by imitating ‘His Divine Agape’ – a love that is selfless and sacrificial; fasting from our wants to help others with their needs.

As a Lenten ascetical practice, fasting means – first of all – fasting from an angry uncharitable heart.  That includes forgiving our self for past sins, because a heart that is angry lacks self-forgiveness and we must be able to forgive ourselves.  Maybe you are holding on to some terrible shame or guilt in your life.  What the Lord wants you to do for Lent is to fast from holding on to that shame.  Let it go!  The Lord has forgiven you – move on!  That is a good fast for Lent and that is sometimes very hard.  As priests minister in the Sacrament of Reconciliation – one of the most difficult things for people to do is to engage in self-forgiveness.   Self-forgiveness is very hard; it is m a good thing to fast from – to forgive yourself.  Fast from that shame and that guilt that you feel.

Fasting must include a life of Beatitude-living.  “Blessed are the poor of heart…blessed are they who mourn…blessed are the meek…and they who hunger and thirst for righteousness…blessed are the merciful…the clean of heart…the peacemakers…those persecuted for the sake of righteousness.” (Matt.5: 3ff)   The Beatitudes are the Attitudes of †Jesus – that’s how disciples must live.  It is a life of self-giving out of my love for God.  This is the fasting that will carry me into eternal life.

As we heard in proclaimed Psalm 51 this morning:

“For you are not pleased with sacrifices;

should I offer a burnt offering, you would not accept it.

My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;

a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.” (Ps.51:18-19)

In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.