The word of Isaiah today is challenging. The people have returned from exile in Babylon. The destroyed temple has been rebuilt. But it is like nothing has changed. These are the children and grandchildren of those who had lived through the surrender and destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. It was a terrible punishment the Jewish nation endured for their sins of idolatry, for abandoning reliance on God alone, and for the lack of justice in society. But even after so much had happened God has to order his prophet again to "Cry out…Tell my people their wickedness, and the house of Jacob their sins". What is their sin? They are acting as if there was no sin among them. As if the nation was doing what is just. As if they had not abandoned their God once again. Oh they fast and publically do penance. Each bows "his head like a reed" and lies "in sackcloth and ashes". But where are their hearts? The prophet tells them that the penance that is really acceptable to God is "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." Only by doing the corporate works of mercy will "your light break forth like the dawn and your wound…quickly be healed." (read Matthew 25)
Two days ago I did a public act of penance as the ashes were placed on my forehead in the sign of cross. I wonder if God was pleased. How do I stand with the poor, the homeless, the hungry and the oppressed? Am I just a comfortable Christian going through the motions? The words of scripture today should make me uncomfortable.
Fr. Michael Hoolahan, C.P. is on the staff of Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center, Sierra Madre, California.