Friday after Ash Wednesday – First Reading


Commentary on Isaiah 58:1-9

A magnificent and, in many ways, a frightening passage from Isaiah. It points to where true religion is to be found.

We have here a wonderful prophetic call in the spirit of those great prophets who lived in the post-Exile period. The call is for an inward spirit to match outward observance. A call that pervades Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel and is found touched on in today’s Gospel.

“Raise your voice like a trumpet.” Big feasts and the beginning of fasts were proclaimed by a trumpet. At Mount Sinai God’s voice is compared to a trumpet blast. Actually, only one day, the Day of Atonement, was prescribed for fasting but there could be other days to commemorate some national disaster. Today our Ash Wednesday fills a similar role, a day when many of our churches are packed.

The people are asking God to come near. They are calling out for just laws. They want to have their fasting and their penances noticed by God. On the surface, they seem to be so religious, so pious and docile, but all the while they are neglecting to do what God really wants. “Why do we fast, and you do not see it? Afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it?” they ask plaintively.

God, through the voice of his prophet Isaiah, gives them a powerful response, one they hardly expected. Instead of praise, they get condemnation.

O yes, they fast all right but at the same time they keep “doing their own things”. They do business on their holy days and oppress their workers. They fast but at the same time quarrel and squabble and physically abuse the poor.

Is this what God wants? Is this real fasting and penance? Looking miserable, “hanging your head like a reed” in a show of abject humility, lying in the midst of sackcloth and ashes? Is it all these very pious acts that God cherishes and wants?

The kind of fast that the Lord wants is something altogether different. It is

to break unjust fetters,

undo the thongs of the yoke,

let the oppressed go free and break every yoke and burden,

to share one’s bread (money and goods) with the hungry,

and shelter the homeless poor,

to clothe the person we see naked

and to act responsibly towards one’s own flesh and blood.

These words were written thousands of years ago; in our enlightened age they still apply fully. They contain a proclamation that will be repeated by Jesus both in his words and actions. It is by doing these things that we will really be in the spirit of Lent. It is a lot more than keeping the fast and abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday or than giving up things like sweets or smoking.

What is really important is to reach out in love and compassion to those in need and to treat every single person with respect and dignity. “Then will your light shine like the dawn and your wound be quickly healed over.” What wound? The wound of our sinfulness, our lack of love and sense of responsibility. The wound of our hypocrisy and false religion.

After doing all that, when we cry out to the Lord, he will answer: “I am here.” Yes, I am in the midst of all that pain and misery you have reached out to rather wallow in your self-chosen pieties.

How do I think God sees me during this Lenten season? What am I doing in response to God’s call to come to his help in my brothers and sisters?

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