We are just a few days into the Lenten Season. As is customary during this period of spiritual preparation, many of us have made the commitment to give up something pleasurable for the 40 days until Easter arrives. Such a decision should be a personal, meaningful promise between each individual and our God.
But, I wonder how many of our co-workers and friends already know what great sacrifice we are making? In how many instances have we already complained of having to do without this comfort, whether it be some food or other superficial luxury like television or coffee? Or perhaps even worse, what sort of bargain have we secretly made with ourselves that in giving up one thing we may over-indulge in something else?
Today’s readings reflect common themes in Jesus’ teachings, but ones that are particularly relevant as we prepare for the Resurrection of our Lord. In Isaiah, the Israelites are dutifully offering penances and observing days of ritual fasting. On the surface, such supposed respect and devotion might seem like the mark of a pious and faithful people. But the prophet tells us that while making these offerings, they are constantly looking for recognition from above, "Why do we fast and you do not see it? Afflict ourselves and you take no note of it?" We might ask how righteous could the intent of their actions be if they are so preoccupied with the reward?
Lest we think we can somehow fool our Lord by these outward signs of devotion, we must remember that our hearts are fully known to Him. While the Israelites offer up rituals and fasts, they also "quarrel" and "fight," oppress their workers and exploit the poor. They make sure that their sacrifice is known to their neighbors by hanging their heads and adorning themselves in "sackcloth and ashes." But this is not the type of offering that our God asks of us.
Clothe the naked. Feed the hungry. Shelter the homeless. Care for your family. Free the unjustly imprisoned. Thus says the Lord, "This is the fasting that I wish." Lent is far more than mere observances on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. It is healing the "wound" of our sinfulness by living our faith of love, compassion and respect. Only then will our light shine, will we be vindicated and will our Lord answer resoundingly, "Here I am!"
In the Gospel, Jesus admonishes those who question his disciples’ failure to fast, saying ""The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they?" The disciples do not fast because God is in their midst. The time for fasting will come when "the bridegroom is taken away." With these few words, Jesus reveals the true intention of such ritual offerings-searching and longing to be closer to God.
Perhaps the greater lesson here then is about where we find Jesus-where is he present? He is not present in the hypocrisy of showy, outward acts of piety with no substance. He is in the pain and suffering of the sick, the naked, the homeless and all those in need. This Lent, let us seek to find him there.
Marlo Serritella is on staff at the Holy Cross Province Development Office in Chicago.