Mar 4, 2022: Friday After Ash Wednesday

1st Reading – Isaiah 58:1-9a

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!

In today’s first reading, the prophet Isaiah is teaching those who have returned to the Holy Land from exile in Babylon that God does not want empty religious practices. Rather, God wants actions that make God’s love visible to God’s people.

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.

God instructs Isaiah to issue a denouncement of the people’s sins and condemn their hypocrisy.

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.

The people seek God daily, that is, they are keen to hear the oracles spoken by the prophets, to learn what God is saying, but they do not act on them — which shows that they do not really know what religion is all about.

Conversion to God is not a matter of engaging in external acts of worship and fasting while living unjust lives.

“Why do we fast, and you do not see it? Afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it?”

The perspective changes. Now the people of Israel speak, complaining that God ignores their fasting.

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?

God responds with a reproach. It’s not surprising that he would ignore fasts if those who perform them commit sins against justice and charity.

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;

God then outlines the acts of justice and charity that should accompany their fasts. These works of mercy are echoed in Jesus’ discourse on the Last Judgment in Matthew 25:23-45. His final judgment depends on our obedience to these mandates.

Christian spirituality has always stressed that love of neighbor and works of mercy are clear proof of a person’s love of God and are a touchstone of true religion.

sharing your bread with the hungry,

Literally, “break your bread” (see Acts 2:46; Mark 6:41; Mark 14:22). This is a very intimate act of sharing — not from a distance or through an agency, but face to face. Neither is this an act of giving of one’s surplus: the giver and recipient eat from the same loaf.

sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them,

The original Hebrew version of this text highlights a level of personal involvement when meeting the needs of others, stating that the poor who have been cast out are to be brought into one’s own house. The naked are to be covered whenever they are encountered.

and not turning your back on your own.

In other words, do not hide from the demands made by your kin. Be open to any all and requests made of you.

Having only recently returned from exile, the Israelites were in the midst of reconstructing their society, their political system, and their temple. We may think that caring for ourselves and for those for whom we are responsible is all we can manage, but Isaiah is calling for us to care for the needy in their need not merely when we feel secure and it is convenient.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,

The focus shifts from exhortation to words of encouragement.

If the people heed God’s call and perform the prescribed works of mercy, God’s love will be made visible not only to those who receive the direct benefits, but to everyone.

and your wound shall quickly be healed; your vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. 

The blessings that follow this way of selfless living all suggest some form of deliverance.

Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer, you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!

Earlier the people asked God: “Why do we fast, and you do not see it? Why do we afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it?” God has answered by showing the Israelites how they have substituted empty religious practices for loving treatment of their fellow human beings. When they correct this, they will once again feel God’s presence.

Psalm 51: 3-4, 5-6ab, 18-19

R. A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.

Today’s responsorial psalm comes from Psalm 51, the best known of the seven Penitential Psalms (the others are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 102, 130, and 143). This Christian designation dates from the 7th century AD for psalms suitable to express repentance.

Although it is considered a lament, it also contains elements of a confession and prayer for forgiveness. Christians often use this psalm to pray for God’s forgiveness and petition him for inner renewal by the Holy Spirit.

If it seems familiar, Psalm 51 was our responsorial psalm on Ash Wednesday.

Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense. 

The passage begins with a plea for mercy in the face of his guilt, appealing to God’s covenant dispositions: goodness (hesed) and compassion or womb-love, the kind of attachment a mother has to the child she has carried in her womb (rahămîm). The first refers to the steadfast love that characterizes that relationship between covenant partners; the second is the attitude God has toward those who have violated the covenant bond.

Of the three words used for sin in this psalm, “offense” (pesha’) is the word that implies a breach in relationship. The term itself is a collective, denoting the sum of misdeeds and rebellion of the gravest nature, such as a violation of the covenant bond.

Appealing to these dispositions of divine graciousness sets the context for the confession of sin and for prayer for transformation that follows.

Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me.

“Guilt” (‘āwōn) denotes twisted behavior or perversion. It too has a collective connotation, meaning that this is not merely one infraction but a manner of behavior.

The third term, hattā’â, is the most commonly used word for “sin” and is a much more technical term. It comes from the verb that means “miss the mark” and it connotes violation of some law or statute. The failure involved is usually deliberate, not accidental.

The psalmist uses three very dynamic verbs when asking for forgiveness:

  • “wipe out,” which suggests vigorous erasing,
  • “wash,” which implies the treading or pounding that was involved in washing clothes, and
  • “cleanse,” which indicates a deep cleansing of dross from metal or disease from the body.

The very language shows that the admission of guilt and the plea for forgiveness are profound and comprehensive.

For I acknowledge my offense, and my sin is before me always: “Against you only have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight.”

All that man can do is go to God and admit his sin. There is no getting away from the fact that it is an offense against God.

The word used here for “evil” (ra‘) is a very general term and can refer simply to behavior that is unacceptable, versus hattā’â and pesha‘, which recur here and have already been discussed.

For you are not pleased with sacrifices; should I offer a holocaust, you would not accept it.

The interior nature of this transformation can also be seen in the character of worship that flows from it. External performance, regardless of how faithfully it is done, is not enough. The psalmist goes so far as to say that God is not even pleased with practices of worship. This may sound exaggerated, but it is in keeping with the theme of inner transformation so prominent in the prophetic reading and psalm response.

My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.

Once again heart and spirit are the focus of the psalmist’s attention. The clean heart is now also a humble heart; the steadfast spirit is now also contrite.

The inner renewal effected by God is now complete.

Gospel – Matthew 9:14-15

The disciples of John approached Jesus and said,
“Why do we and the Pharisees fast much,
but your disciples do not fast?”
Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests mourn
as long as the bridegroom is with them?
The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them,
and then they will fast.”

Today’s gospel reading is comprised of an interesting quote from Jesus about fasting, not because it tells us anything about the specific practice in his day, but because of the reason he gives for not requiring his disciples to fast in that way.

The disciples of John approached Jesus and said, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast much, but your disciples do not fast?”

The followers of John the Baptist approach Jesus and inquire about the fasting practices of his disciples. It’s unclear whether they are accusing him of wrongdoing or merely seeking to learn.

Jesus’ reply is both instructive and prophetic.

Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?

What is translated here as “the wedding guests” is literally “the sons of the house where the wedding being celebrated,” an expression referring to the bridegroom’s closest friends.

Fasting is a sign of mourning and would be inappropriate at such a time of joy as a wedding. So too was the current day a time of joy, when Jesus was here on earth, proclaiming God’s kingdom.

The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them,
and then they will fast.”

A reference to Jesus’ own death. This prophetic statement looks forward to the time when Jesus would no longer be with the disciples visibly, the time of the Church, a time of fasting.

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