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.

Isaiah 58: 5-8

Why does God, in the mouth of Isaiah, declare that living for others is an act of fasting? And why is it that the Church pairs the reading from Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus is asked why his disciples do not fast with this Isaiah reading?  

On the one hand, the question that John’s disciples ask Jesus concerning why his disciples, unlike themselves, do not fast is speaking of the fasting of acts of self-discipline that we can, far too readily, separate from our other-centeredness. As Isaiah says, we are not to fast from food or engage in other bodily disciplines while at the same time carrying out our own pursuits and maltreating our laborers. For the very purpose of any fasting is to more fully awaken us to the wider world, the needs of others, and the light of God that shines out of all creation. If we do fast from food or from habits that diminish our wakefulness, it is only in service to turning our gaze from ourselves, our own concerns, and our own striving for power and profit, to the world outside of us.

Perhaps this is why Jesus’ disciples need not fast while Jesus is with them in the flesh. “Can the sons of the bridal chamber mourn so long as the bridegroom is with them?  But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Matthew 9: 15). When we are attendants at the marriage of our friend, he or she is the center of our attention. During the time of the celebration, we have no real problem putting aside our personal concerns and celebrating with joy this unique and central moment in the life of our friend. It is his or her life into which we are absorbed at this moment. We celebrate, eat, drink, and dance not primarily to gratify ourselves but rather absorbed somewhat ecstatically in the love and joy of our friend and his or her spouse. Were we to attend the wedding and then make a show of our own abstemiousness, we would be failing to give ourselves over to the life of our friends and the reality of the situation.

But, Jesus says, “when the bridegroom is taken from them, then they will fast.” The time will come when, as the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus will be absent and sadness and discouragement will set in. The gaze of the disciples will turn from Jesus to their own pain at his absence. Then the need to purify their look, their gaze, the focus of their attention will recur. Then they will have to work and to practice if they are to turn from preoccupation with their own state to the wider world which they have forgotten. This is why Jesus requires the disciples on the road to invite him to stay with them, to open themselves in hospitality to the stranger who is the Lord himself.

We fast, in the conventional sense, in order to attempt to properly re-order our lives. When I was an adolescent, an older cousin would often say to me at mealtime, “Do you eat to live or live to eat?” Now, aside from my Italian roots which always tend me toward to latter, the question is an important one. And we can ask it about pretty much all of our indulgences in life.  Almost every necessity in life can become disordered. Our needs for food, drink, sex, sociality, privacy, work, rest, relaxation, recognition by others, and so on can become means of dulling our consciousness. They can become addictions that take over our very reason for being. We can find ourselves in a place where we live to eat, or drink, or have sex, or isolate, or socialize or seek the approbation of others. To the degree we become addicted, we have closed down our vision. We cannot see others and the world as they are outside of us. So, of course, we cannot recognize the appeal to us of those who are bound unjustly, oppressed, hungry, homeless, or naked. We wind up turning our backs on our own, as Isaiah says.

When Jesus appears as resurrected to Thomas, he tells him: “How blissful those who do not see and who have faith” (John 20: 29). Faith, however, in the most radical sense, is sight. It is the realization of a capacity we all have to see the Lord in every person.  Not the Jesus in the flesh but the Risen Jesus that can be seen only with faith. Faith and self-centeredness, however, cannot co-exist.  It is when our whole world, as personal, is like the bridegroom for us that our fasting is complete. It is in denying ourselves that we learn to turn our gaze from our egoic self-preoccupation and concern to the Mystery of the others.  

So, during these days of preparation for the “official” beginning of lent on Sunday, as we ponder how to make our fast this lent, we can perhaps consider where it is that our tendency to selfishness and self-interest most has its hold on us. How can we fast in such a way that we begin to learn how to reform those dispositions in us that serve our cravings for satisfaction, or recognition, or power over others? How do we begin to free ourselves of the greed, anger, and fear that keep us from recognizing the light of the Lord in others?

They are the real lovers of God
Who feel others’ sorrow as their own.
When they perform selfless service,
They are humble servants of the Lord.
Respecting all, despising none,
They are pure in thought, word, and deed.
Blessed is the mother of such a child,
And in their eyes the Divine Mother
Shines in every woman they see.
They are always truthful, even-minded,
Never coveting others’ wealth,
Free from all selfish attachments,
Ever in tune with the Holy Name.
Their bodies are like sacred shrines
In which the Lord of Love is seen.
Free from greed, anger, and fear,
These are the real lovers of God.

Narsinha Mehta

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