Friday after Ash Wednesday
The readings for the day can be found here.
I have always appreciated the self-deconstructive correlation of readings and practices for Lent: on Ash Wednesday, a day loaded with public symbols and practices, the readings critique public religiosity and shows of personal holiness, and today, Isaiah has God reject the religious practices of the people, just as so many other prophetic oracles do (e.g. Amos 5:21ff; Micah 6:6-8; Jeremiah 7:21ff; Hosea 6:6, and any number of others). In fact, I think it would be difficult to find another religion’s holy book which is so suspicious of religious practices! Note that the whole context of the reading from Isaiah is a critique of the idea that religious observance obliges God to show us favor: “They [Israel] ask me [God] to declare what is due them, pleased to gain access to God” (58:2) – we have done all the right rituals and gestures, so God owes us. An odd paradox in any kind of gift-giving is that the giver receives all kinds of benefits (praise and feelings of self-righteousness and the knowledge that someone owes him/her), while the receiver ends up in debt to the giver. (*If this sounds warped, think of the fun and games of Christmas shopping – finding the perfect gift to match the other person’s gift for you and strike the same level of intimacy in the relationship.*) We all know in our heads that healthy religion doesn’t work that way – OF COURSE God doesn’t want such a transactional model of religion that leaves us feeling like we can manipulate favors out of a God who is in our debt – but I think a lot of times we fall into that old script anyway.
In a liturgical season that has more “gestures” of external religious practice than any other, we are paradoxically called to put an end to what Franciscan priest Richard Rohr calls “personal holiness projects” – efforts to shine up our image (with God, with other people, even with ourselves) for our own benefit; instead, we are called back to justice as the hallmark of appropriate relationship with God. No other mode of self-identification – not ashes on the forehead, not doctrinal orthodoxy, not scintillating worship, not stimulating preaching, not amazing music – is adequate without justice.
Where does that leave us in a season like this? Do we stop fasting and praying and giving (which maybe we didn’t really want to do anyway, and now we have a good reason for it)? Instead, I suggest we shift our understanding of why we do what we do: Isaiah speaks for Israel: “Why do we fast, and you do not see it? Afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it?” (58:3) We have done our good thing, so now you owe us, but things still aren’t working the way we want! What exactly do we expect God to notice, if not that we have put God in our debt? Our religious practices are not really about GOD, as if God needed or wanted our hunger or our pain or even our extra prayers: it’s not about keeping our accounts positive with God, or keeping God in our debt, or even keeping God on our side – the bad news is that we can’t do any such thing, but the good news is that we don’t have to. We do what we do to make US notice it: we practice to transform our vision of the world, of one another, of ourselves, and (hopefully) to keep us close to the gritty reality of the world. In particular in this season, fasting should teach us what hunger feels like, remind us how many people don’t have a choice about being hungry, and drive us to do something about it. It’s no wonder that the word in the gospels when Jesus felt compassion, splagchnizomai, means to be moved in one’s guts – compassion feels like hunger, means knowing how it feels to be hungry (hence “hungering and thirsting for justice,” maybe?), and like hunger, demands that we do something about it. We need only look around us to see and be moved by people being treated unjustly for being different, or not having enough to eat, or being silenced for challenging the powers that be. Now is the time to do something about it – fast!