Saturday, March 12, 2011

Fasting in Lent a Hungering for Justice

"Thus says the Lord GOD: 
cry out full-throated and unsparingly, 
lift up your voice like a trumpet blast; 
Tell my people their wickedness, 
and the house of Jacob their sins. 
They seek me day after day,
 and desire to know my ways, 
like a nation that has done what is just
 and not abandoned the law of their God;
 They ask me to declare what is due them, 
pleased to gain access to God.
“Why do we fast, and you do not see it? 
Afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it?” Lo, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits, 
and drive all your laborers.
 Yes, your fast ends in quarreling and fighting,
 striking with wicked claw.
 Would that today you might fast
 so as to make your voice heard on high!
 Is this the manner of fasting I wish, 
of keeping a day of penance:
 that a man bow his head like a reed
 and lie in sackcloth and ashes?
 Do you call this a fast,
 a day acceptable to the LORD?
 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, 58:10-9a).

These words from the prophet Isaiah, an indictment of the Israelite community of his day (especially the rich and powerful) offer in a very summary, condensed, and concise formula the reason and rationale for fasting and repentance. The Church put forward this reading for consideration on the Friday after Ash Wednesday in order to help remind us what the Lenten season means in terms of a time of penance, fasting, and sacrifice. In general, the Lenten season is a 40 day period of reflecting on and remembering the Passion of the Lord: his devotion to humanity as the "Son of Man" (or, servant to all), his teachings, his legacy of love for the outcast, marginated, poor, and afflicted, his determination to be God's fullest expression of love and mercy despite the rejection and malice of those who opposed him, and his resolve to love until the end by carrying the cross, being wholly rejected by his own, and being hanged from a tree. Our fasting, repentance, and sacrifices are meant to unite us more and more to the above legacy of Jesus, referred to as the "Paschal Mystery."

Over the past several days, I have been receiving email alerts from Catholic or Christian advocacy groups who are calling on people to decry some of the cuts that Congress is proposing to balance the budget. One of these groups, called "Sowers of Justice" (the advocacy arm of the Office for Social Justice for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis), listed some of the cuts as follows: $100 million from Emergency Food and Shelter Program, $2.3 billion from job training programs, $1.08 billion from Head Start, $875 million from International Disaster Assistance, $800 million from International Food Aid, $2.5 billion from affordable housing, $1 billion from Community Health Centers, $904 million from migrants and refugees. When I received this email, I didn't respond immediately. I admit that in my busyness I let the email sit in my inbox for a couple days. But, after reading the above passage from Isaiah, I made an immediate connection to what it means to do penance, to fast, and to sacrifice in light of the attempts to balance the US budget in part on the backs of the some of the poorest in our world and on the backs of those struggling in this country. It means repenting and fasting from my indifference, and expressing my outrage and even anger at the injustice of cutting these programs while the defense budget, for the most part, will get a "free pass" and endure only minimal cuts relative to so many other areas. There's no easy way around it, according to Isaiah: For our fasting, sacrifice, and penance to be meaningful to God and to unite us to Jesus' legacy, it must lead us to act and cry out in the face of the grave injustices currently causing so much suffering in our world. Pat, TOR