Thursday, February 11, 2016

Fasting Without a Rice Bowl

By Colleen O’Sullivan

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; 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!   (Isaiah 58:6-9a)

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)

“No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others.  So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.” 
(St. John Chrysostom, as quoted by then-Cardinal Bergoglio shortly before being elected Pope in a Lenten message to the people of the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires)

The other day someone asked me what I was giving up for Lent.  Without waiting for an answer, she told me she was giving up M&Ms.  Someone standing nearby chimed in.  She was planning to give up milk in her coffee.  I didn’t know either of them, and I was waiting to hear what would follow, but that was where the conversation ended. 

So much of what we do during Lent seems like fasting without a rice bowl.  You know, the little paper bowl you are given in your parish to put on your table at home.  The bowl that holds what you save by fasting or otherwise place in it from the goodness of your heart.  The bowl that is emptied at the end of Lent, when you give the contents to Catholic Relief Services, in whose hands it becomes food for the hungry around the world.

Maybe that’s what God was saying to the people in today’s first reading.  Without a rice bowl or some other form of giving, fasting in and of itself doesn’t means much.  Showy displays with sackcloth and ashes don’t cut it according to the Lord.  Sacrifices that are better for our bodies than anything else probably don’t get high marks in God’s estimation, either.

God is very clear about what type of fasting is desirable:  Working for justice and freedom for the oppressed, whether in a refugee center on the Texas border or in some far away corner of the globe.  Feeding the hungry by stocking the food pantry in your parish, volunteering at SOME (So Others Might Eat) downtown, or providing sustenance to a war-torn area far from Northern Virginia.  Providing hospitality, shelter, food, and clothing to those who would otherwise literally be out in the cold when the hypothermia shelter comes to your parish or a church in your neighborhood. 

Lent 2016 is still young.  There’s still time to ponder God’s words in today’s reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah and to reflect on how we plan to fast during this season.  Fasting without a rice bowl, without a means to reach out in love and compassion to others, is empty.   Especially during this Jubilee Year of Mercy, what God desires is fasting and sacrifice that lead to corporal works of mercy.

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