On Shrove Tuesday, I was at a church pancake supper. The conversation quickly turned to Lent, which started the next day, and about fasting. Each of us started talking about the specifics of what we were going to give up during Lent. Different foods and activities were named.
Every year, there is a Scripture passage (Isaiah 58) that talks about fasting that appears in the Liturgy of the Hours on Ash Wednesday and in the daily Mass readings two days later.
The passage tells of an Israelite community that is faithful in their fasting and religious rituals. However, the people complain to the prophet Isaiah that the Lord does not hear their prayers.
Isaiah responds that while fasting, the community members are oppressing their workers, quarreling and fighting among themselves, and pursuing their own interests. Such a fast is displeasing to the Lord.
Isaiah then speaks of fast that is pleasing to the Lord. Such a fast is said "to loose the bonds of injustice" and "to let the oppressed go free." Isaiah then gets closer to home, challenging the community members "to share your bread with the hungry" and "to welcome the homeless poor into your house."
Isaiah's community had managed to separate their fasting and other religious practices from their life in the world, especially in their relationship with the poor and oppressed in their community. The same thing can happen with us and with our Lenten fasting practices today.
The Church, by placing the Isaiah 58 passage each year in our public worship at the start of Lent, is telling us about how to fast today in a way that is pleasing to the Lord.
The examples Isaiah uses are challenging: share your bread with the hungry and welcome the homeless poor into your house. This sounds face to face, close and personal.
One way to do this is to check in with your parish and ask how your parish is reaching out to those who are hungry and homeless. Ask if you can see what happens and join in for a week or more.
Another possibility is to take a day, invite some friends, and register with Habitat for Humanity (www.hfh.org/volunteer) to volunteer between March 21 and June 21 as part of the Interfaith Habitat Works. Work with Habitat families building affordable homes.
If a longer term commitment is possible, check out Welcome Home with Catholic Social Services where volunteers befriend and support women and men making the transition from "homeless to homes" in local neighbourhoods across the Edmonton region.
In Isaiah's time, reaching out to those who were hungry and homeless was inevitably local in scope. Today, we have the means to reach out globally. Last December, Pope Francis invited Catholic organizations to become part of a global campaign to challenge the injustices of a world where nearly a billion men, women and children have inadequate food.
Through our personal and financial support for Development and Peace on Solidarity Sunday (April 6) and throughout the year we can share our bread with the hungry.
Isaiah's call to loose the bonds of injustice and to let the oppressed go free is far reaching, recalling the liberating words of the Exodus. It captures the spirit of contemporary Catholic social teaching of living the Gospel call to love through actions of both charity and justice.
Isaiah is not telling his people to stop fasting. Fasting is a time-honoured practice in our Catholic spirituality. Our fasting needs to move from general conversation to specific commitments. My Shrove Tuesday pancake supper companions were right to name their specific commitments.
However, the risk of us repeating today what happened to Isaiah's community 2,500 years ago is very real. Our fasting practices need to be part of a personal and community spiritual life that is both deep – opening ourselves to God, and wide – living a life of social solidarity with our neighbours.
Isaiah tells his community that if they do change their ways, and fast in a way pleasing to the Lord, "then you shall call, and the Lord will answer, you shall cry for help and he will say here I am." This is good news for us too.
(Bob McKeon: firstname.lastname@example.org)