Friday, February 20, 2015

Lent: An Affair of the Heart

By Colleen O’Sullivan

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.  Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed.  (Isaiah 58:5-8a)

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.
(Psalm 51:18-19)

In today’s first reading, we find the Israelites returned from exile.  In fact, they’ve been back for several generations.  They’re growing apathetic, maybe even cynical.  Life is hard, not what they expected when God led them home.  They wonder why God doesn’t reward them for their days of fasting, but God says they’re just going through the motions.  Even on a day of fasting, they work and they make their hired hands work as well.  Frequently, they end the day by fighting and quarreling with one another.

How much has really changed throughout the centuries?  It’s Lent.  Many of us are observing the days of fasting, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.  Many of us will abstain from meat today and on the other Fridays of Lent.  But for some of us, it’s an empty attempt at piety.  We complain about it.  Maybe we go to Red Lobster for a big seafood dinner and come home and then notice the rice bowl waiting on the kitchen table.  We reach into our pockets and throw in some loose change.  Then we turn the TV on and forget all about Lent and anybody’s needs but our own.

God is no more interested in empty gestures today than he was in Isaiah’s day.  What God desires of us is not a meaningless show of religious observance but our very hearts.  What good is a rice bowl if we don’t care about the hungry families throughout the world that Catholic Relief Services will be able to feed with our contributions?  As long as our hearts aren’t engaged, we’ll always be throwing in just a few coins while going on our merry way to Red Lobster or some other restaurant.

As the psalmist points out, what God really wants is contrite and humble hearts.  Hearts so disposed quickly realize how much we have and how much we can share with God’s poor and hungry children, whether right here in northern Virginia or in some far away spot half way around the globe.

Lent is just beginning.  With a view to today’s Scripture readings, take a few minutes to reflect on what you are doing for Lent, whether it be in the form of giving something up or doing something more.  As you walk the long, dusty road to Jerusalem these forty days, the important thing to consider is whether or not your heart is fully engaged.  

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