Isaiah 1:10, 16-20
"Make justice your aim…Come now, let us set things right."
As a child, my siblings and I were always instructed to "give something up" for Lent with the explanation that self-sacrifice would make us holier. In reality, though, we rivaled the Pharisees in our bids for attention, moaning loudly when we could not indulge and figuratively competing for the award of "Greatest Sacrifice". As we practiced it, fasting was hardly a path to holiness, and it certainly did not bring about justice.
It is interesting to note, too, that our sacrifices were predominantly food-related. We kids gave up chocolate, ice cream, gum, or soda, and our parents abstained from desserts, coffee, or alcohol. As I got older I found that many people use Lent as an excuse to enforce a diet, combining their honest need for healthier living with their religious aspirations in sort of a "Jenny Craig for Jesus" mode. Inevitably, though, as soon as Lent was over we all went back to our previous ways. Again, our fasting was hardly a path to holiness, and it certainly did not bring about justice.
These simple Lenten practices were not all bad. Our intentions were admirable, and our fasts did serve as a reminder to pray for those who don’t have enough food to be allowed the choice of "giving it up". But is that enough? Today’s readings would say it’s not.
The challenge of Jesus is to go beyond superficial actions and words, beyond good intentions. God commands us to sacrifice in ways that shackle our self-righteousness and push us to our knees in humble service. Our ears must be cleared of the noisy sludge of the world so we can hear the cries of our sisters and brothers. Our hands, tightly wrapped around our possessions, status, or pride, must be wrenched open so we can beg for forgiveness and give mercy. Our minds, self-satisfied and centered on the route of least resistance, must be split open by divine love so we can reach out to those who lack the food, safety, and basic human dignity we take for granted. Our hardened sin-filled hearts must be melted in the fire so we, too, can pour out our blood for others.
I tremble as I gaze at my sacrifice in this light, and I fall helplessly into prayer. How can I possibly meet this challenge? Then God’s word breaks through my confusion, picks me up, and simply says, "Make justice your aim…Come now, let us set things right."
Amy Florian is a teacher and consultant working in Chicago. For many years she has partnered with the Passionists. Visit Amy’s website at http://www.amyflorian.com/.