Lenten fast should challenge injustice

Bob McKeon

JOURNEY TO JUSTICE

February 23, 2015

Each year as we enter the first week of Lent, we naturally tend to think of fasting. Often we may think of things to give up and abstain from. Candies and deserts may be chosen.

For adults, maybe it is alcohol or smoking. It is almost as if we can get a second chance to work at the New Year's resolutions we failed at a month earlier.

Significantly, the Scripture passages for the first days of Lent each year speak of fasting. However, what is meant by fasting is different from simply giving up certain treats and pleasures for 40 days.

On Ash Wednesday, the Scripture passage selected for the Liturgy of the Hours (the breviary) prayed by clergy, religious and other Christians is taken from chapter 58 from the prophet Isaiah. The same passage appears in the Lectionary for the daily Mass on the Friday following Ash Wednesday.

This passage speaks of a fast that is pleasing to the Lord. Isaiah addresses a congregation that claims to be obeying the religious rules of worship and fasting, but complains that their prayers are not being heard or answered by the Lord.

Isaiah does not address the details of their worship and fasting practices, but challenges their actions in the community and the wider society. They "oppress their workers." They serve their own interests on their fast days. They quarrel, fight and "strike with a wicked fist."

Isaiah then speaks about the type of fast that is pleasing to the Lord: "to loose the bonds of injustice, . . . to let the oppressed go free."

He goes further as he asks, "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?"

If Isaiah's community follows his teaching, then the community is promised the Lord will answer their prayers, and will respond to their cry for help.

Today as we hear this ancient passage in 21st century Alberta, its challenging message still comes through loud and clear. Can members of our parishes today find themselves in the same difficult situation in which Isaiah's community found itself so many centuries ago?

Isaiah does not speak against fasting, but says our fasting, prayer and worship are radically incomplete and inadequate unless accompanied by charity and social justice, especially with respect to those who are poor and powerless, both close to home and in distant parts of the world.

This is why for almost 50 years the Canadian Church has chosen Lent as a special time to focus on the work of Development and Peace in terms of solidarity visits, education programs and financial contributions.

Development and Peace provides practical ways to "loose the bonds of injustice" and support those in need living in countries far beyond the borders of Canada.

Lent can also be a time of conscious reflection and recommitment about what it means "to let the oppressed go free in our own communities." Think of the practical ways we can actually "share our bread with the hungry" through food collections, support for local food banks, and engaging face to face by volunteering with organizations such as Marian Centre, Inner City Pastoral Ministry and St. Vincent de Paul Society.

Isaiah's call to assist the homeless I find especially challenging. One Scripture translation says to "shelter the oppressed and the homeless."

The NRSV translation used in the Lectionary for Canada says to "bring the homeless poor into your house." For those who find this text a bit too challenging and unsettling, at least think of welcoming the homeless poor in Housing First and Welcome Home programs into our neighbourhoods and parish communities.

Possibly Lent can be an opportunity to look more widely, and examine our personal and parish engagements with long-term municipal and provincial initiatives to reduce poverty and eliminate chronic homelessness in our communities.

Today, we can say that Isaiah is calling us to "walk the talk." Lent is indeed a time to intensify our prayer lives and spiritual practices including fasting.

Lent is also a time of deep conversion where the Word of God transforms every dimension of our lives, including how we reach out in charity and justice to those experiencing oppression, hunger and homelessness.

(Bob McKeon: sjustice@caedm.ca)