Friday after Ash Wednesday
As we stand at the beginning of Lent, the Church gives us in today’s readings some directions for our fasting in this time of penance. Just like the people of the Old Covenant, we may also be tempted to regard fasting and all sacrifices which we offer in these days as a merely outward exercise. We fast and expect God to see it; we humble ourselves and demand a reward of God.
But the prophet Isaiah tells us today that this kind of fasting will not make our voice heard on high (cf. Is 58:4). Our fasting must rather merely be the external expression of our invisible repentance. In this sense it is a sign of something we already have: sorrow for our sins. But at the same time it is a help and a means for a bigger purpose. It helps us, as Benedict XVI writes in his message for Lent, “to restore friendship with God”.
It does not matter what we abstain from. This is, of course, something which everybody has to decide individually for himself. It could be food, meat or sweets, smoking or alcohol, television or the internet, and so on. But it is important to see that we do not fast for the sake of fasting. This would be ridiculous, for some of the things we cut down are actually good in themselves. We refrain from things which are important – perhaps too important – for us in order to become free for greater love towards God and our brothers and sisters.
We must therefore see fasting in its proper context: it forms a unity together with prayer and almsgiving. We grow in love towards God in prayer and towards our fellow men, especially the poor, in sharing our goods with them. They deserve more than a superfluous fraction of our abundance, as it were, the crumbs from our table. Isaiah challenges us to share our bread with the hungry.
Let us therefore in these holy forty days “mortify our egoism and open our heart to love of God and neighbour” (Benedict XVI). Let us give through prayer and almsgiving what we set aside through our fasting. We can give the time we save to God and the people around us and money and other material goods to the poor. “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am” (Is 58:9).