Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. "Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?"
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like rushes, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, 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.
Then the disciples of John came to Jesus, saying, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?" And Jesus said to them, "The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.
I expect that many people felt insulted when Isaiah accused them of rebelling against God. They saw themselves as devout Jews, eager in their religious practice. But the stern, uncompromising prophet pointed out that even while they fasted for religious purposes, they were still unworried about oppressing their workers. In which case, the religion they practiced was not really to please God, but to please themselves. Their ritual observance has become merely a traditional activity, something they are doing for themselves. Even on the days when they fast, they end up arguing and fighting, self-righteous and disunited. Today, we too can fall into this syndrome, putting questions of ritual, etiquette and procedure on a higher pedestal than they deserve, while leaving the substance of charity (i.e. loving service, as prescribed by Jesus, the washer-of-feet) on the back burner.
Many seem to limit the ideal of "walking-with-God" to something that is fulfilled in a one-day-a-week commitment, by attending church. Some will do even this only if the Mass or service be held at a time that caters entirely to their personal preferences. We become so wrapped up in our own concerns, that there is hardly time for conversing with God our Maker. But helped by the words of prophet Isaiah, perhaps we can see more clearly the penance that God offers us as a special blessing, in the blessed season of Lent. It's designed not as a time to indulge oneself, but as a time to think of others. The fast that God prescribes for us is to find the time to clothe the naked, to right injustices, to feed the hungry, and to make provision for those who have no home. It is to love my neighbour as truly as my own self. As always, the living Word is here to help and guide us.
We normally link fasting with food. To fast is to deprive ourselves of certain foods for a period of time. But in the first reading Isaiah defines fasting more broadly. He understands it as leaving aside all those ways of relating to people that damage and oppress them and replacing such ways of relating with working for justice on behalf of those in greatest need. Isaiah seems to be saying that fasting can never be separated from that other Jewish practice that we associate with Lent, almsgiving, the sharing of our resources with others. On Ash Wednesday the gospel put before us the three great Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Isaiah reminds us today that all three stand or fall together. They are three expressions of one way of life. We cannot focus on any one to the detriment of the other two. Fasting is saying "no" to something. Isaiah reminds us that such saying "no" is always with a view to saying "yes," a "yes" that finds expression in greater service of our neighbour. Such service of others makes our prayer more acceptable to God. In the words of our first reading, "Cry, and the Lord will answer; call and he will say, "I am here".