Saturday after Ash Wednesday – Lenten Sabbath
Readings: Isaiah 58:9-14; Psalm 85 (86); Luke 5:27-32
The reading from Isaiah is the second, lesser well known, section of a famous chapter on the true nature of fasting, one that places real commitment to justice at its centre. Today’s section is consistent with this idea, but brings the focus more onto the Lord God. God cannot be sought apart from doing justice, but God must nevertheless be sought in his own right as the source and worker of justice. If we attend to justice, even to the extent of putting others before ourselves, God will attend to us. It could be summarised by the words of Jesus: ‘those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (commit themselves to justice) will be satisfied (Mt 5:6)’. It means attending to the sick (understood in various ways) as today’s Gospel makes clear.
All this inspires us to an active love of neighbour, by which we express love for the God we cannot see. But today’s text from Isaiah also speaks of keeping the Sabbath, of resting from activity, if it cites especially activity aimed at securing our own pleasure. Nonetheless, I think this reminder of holy rest is important, and is a vital counter-balance to the call to act justly. Such rest allowed the Jews to focus on God, to worship, but also to realise their dependence on God and what God alone can do for them: he is their redeemer, and source of grace and justice. Resting allows this conviction to be put into practice, to become rooted in life, – not that one gives up righteousness or justice to do this.
At the beginning of Lent we tend to focus, no doubt sincerely and with zeal, on what we will do, and indeed do for God: how we will practise more self-denial, prayer more, be more charitable. But we need to keep God at the centre. We do need to cooperate in our sanctification, and cooperate as generously as we can, but more fundamentally still we need to realise that God saves us – we do not save ourselves. We have to be open to God. What we do is a response to what God has done for us in Christ and still does for us. We are reliant on grace to kick-start, sustain and complete our actions for God. Lenten practices need to keep their focus on God, on his saving love shown us in the self-emptying of Jesus. Lent is about what God can do for us – if we let him.
Lent ought to make space for God, to give God time. We are called to rest from self-centredness, but also to rest from some of our merely human activity, and find our rest and repose in God’s love for us, God’s love for us as sick and sinful. In receiving this love, let us be so invigorated as to offer it to others in acts of merciful justice, demonstrating divine love.
Entering such rest involves true attentiveness to God and deep stillness before God. It is a challenge to all. It requires a close examination of our attitudes and mindset, and careful spiritual discernment, all of which is about growing in true self-knowledge before God, as St Catherine puts it. In the ideas of St John of the Cross, it is about being open, whilst aware of one’s inner poverty, to a passive night of the senses and soul in which God actively works on us, as well as an active night where we are more active in the purification of senses and soul. There is a time and place for us to rest, and let God do the rest. Let us pray that this Lent will provide such a rest, and be a real Lenten Sabbath.