Today all Catholics throughout the world will have a grumble in their stomach. That means more than 1 billion people world-wide and around 75 million here in the US, except for those who are too young or too old , who will feel light-headed or weak. Today, Catholics fast, a traditional sign of grieving.
Why do we fast? I think for two reasons: both because when people are distraught, they don't even think about food, and because it kind of hurts.
We are distraught. We are in a harsh, sad, scary situation because our lives are riddled with sinfulness. We realize that something is really not right in our lives without God.
Secondly, we fast because it hurts. In a world that constantly runs away from pain, we spiritualize it and take it upon ourselves. We give pain a deeper meaning so that it is no longer oppressive, but somehow liberating. Today our pain doesn't conquer us, we conquer it. Why? How?
Because of the Cross and the Resurrection.
Today's readings tell us there is a bad way to fast, and a good way. There's a bad way to celebrate Lent, and there's a good way.
Today we get that in just a few words from the prophet Joel: Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return (Hebrew shoov, “repent”) to the Lord your God. “Get everyone together and ask for God's mercy.” Yes, but there is more to it than that. Jesus explains further: “Don't do all this for show; don't do it to look good. If you do it for that, then that's all you will get. God won't reward show-offs. He rewards what is done in secret.” The prophet Isaiah in Ch. 58:1-12, gives a more detailed explanation: Don't sit around with ashes,
Abraham Joshua Heschel was a devout Jewish scholar who recently died. When we studied him in Prophets class I was really amazed at the way he expressed what Isaiah and Joel are talking about here: all those sacrifices you do, all that ritual, is just a pathetic empty show in the face of God if you just go out and do exactly the opposite of what He really wants. Heschel says: “Deeds of injustice vitiate both sacrifice and prayer. Men may not drown the cries of the oppressed with the noise of hymns, nor buy off the Lord with increased offerings. The prophets disparaged the cult when it became a substitute for righteousness...Righteousness is not just a value; it is God's part of human life, God's stake in human history. Perhaps it is because the suffering of man is a blot upon God's conscience; because it is in relations between man and man that God is at stake. Or is it simply because the infamy of a wicked act is infinitely greater than we are able to imagine? People act as they please, doing what is vile, abusing the weak, not realizing that they are fighting God, affronting the divine, or that the oppression of man is a humiliation of God.”
So, let's start Lent off right: with a fasting pleasing to God. Let's spend today not on our own pursuits, but upon God's. In class, in our homework, in whatever else we do today, we don't do it for ourselves, for show. We do it for God. And during our free time, we look for what good we can do, for how we can “free the oppressed” so that our sacrifice is not a mockery of God to His face.
As we begin this season, we get two homilies in one Mass. The first you just heard. The second is the liturgy's: ashes and a command. I am kind of jealous, but not really, because I know these ashes are going to do much more for you than my homily; for while the latter might go in one ear and out the other, these ashes will remain with you all day. You will feel them again and again, and you will recall the words spoken to you.
There are two options for what you are told: Repent and believe in the Gospel. And: Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
God calls you to reflect on this command he gives you: Repent and believe! Remember! This is your second homily today.
Let us live this Lent so as to be worthy of Easter.