Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
February 23, 2004
Prophets voice Lenten message
It is said that archaeologists have found some eras in ancient Israel when the houses of people were all of relatively the same size. In those eras, there were few if any prophets. But archaeologists have also found other time periods when a few houses were of great size while others were tiny. These homes were built during the ages of the prophets and are a sign to us of when biblical prophecy was needed.
In Advent, the prophets are an integral part of our liturgy, telling of the coming of the Lord. In Lent, the prophets return, now to warn of the spiritual danger of social injustice.
On the Friday and Saturday after Ash Wednesday, we hear an extended reading from Isaiah 58. In it, the prophet tells of what the Lord requires: "to loose the bonds of justice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke."
Isaiah rails against pious religious observance that exists simultaneously with social injustice. This is a fake religion; in fact, it is idolatry. "Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers," the prophet says.
How can piety co-exist with oppression? It makes no sense. It is hypocritical. Our traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving - outlined in the Gospel for Ash Wednesday - are a recipe for personal and social transformation. They can move us beyond hypocrisy.
We pray not to show off our virtue. We pray because we recognize there is something, Someone, far greater than our own wants and desires. I am not the centre of the universe. Rather, I bow before the One who is greater than I. God is absolute; I am relative. Before evil can be overcome, I must be transformed.
Fasting acknowledges, lives out, the relativity of my own desires. I forego the pleasure of something which is good - not harmful - in order to put my prayer into action. This is not idle talk. I willingly suffer for it, even if the suffering is only token.
Almsgiving takes this a step further. Again, I give to the poor, not so others will know of my goodness, but to herald God's kingdom when the bonds of injustice will be severed.
I also acknowledge that I cannot heal myself, that healing of my spirit comes through service to others.
Isaiah himself says it: When you "bring the homeless poor into your house, . . . your healing shall spring up quickly. . . . You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail."
The antidote for a spiritually-deprived society is to stop blaming and start helping. Help others and you will be healed. Pray, fast and give alms and the idol of affluent self-centredness will be put to flight. Priorities will be re-ordered. If enough people take up the challenge, society will move towards greater justice.
When archaeologists dig up the almost-forgotten remains of urban Canada in a couple of millennia, they will find some areas with huge homes, swimming pools and multi-car garages. They will also find other areas with small houses in poor repair. They may wonder, "Who were the prophets in that day and why did their words go unheeded?"
Too often, we passively wait for government to put an end to the evils of the day and then become angry when government leaders reflect the worst human impulses, not the best. If we want change, we have to be that change.
The words of the prophet need not go unheeded. Each of us has the spiritual resources to make a new beginning. We are all capable, for the world's transformation, of praying, fasting and giving alms. With our witness, we can coalesce into a movement that will put the injustice of today to flight.
Lent is not an isolated season of personal piety. It ought to be the start of profound transformation that sweeps through society like a whirlwind.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.