March 7, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Friday after Ash Wednesday
Reading (Isaiah 58:1-9a) Gospel (St. Matthew 9:14-15)
Our Lord tells us in the Gospel reading that as long as the bridegroom is with the bride, they will not fast; but as soon as the bridegroom is taken from them, then they will fast. This time of Lent is really a time of preparation for that nuptial celebration, the union of our soul with Christ, the rising to new and fullness of life. And so the fasting that we endure during Lent, the penances that we take on, are really intended to prepare the soul for a greater and more perfect love for Jesus so that we will be more completely and profoundly united with Him.
He tells us then, through the prophet Isaiah, the kind of fast He is looking for. It is not merely a matter of simply not eating and lying around in sackcloth and ashes as they used to do; but rather, He says, “This is the kind of fast that I wish: releasing those that are bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke, setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke, sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless, clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.” These are the things He is looking for, the areas of true and clear injustice, or the areas where we can actually practice true charity toward those in need. Those are the things the Lord is looking for. It is not just simply about the self; but rather it is looking at the areas in our lives (or in the lives of others, in this case) where there can really be a difference that is made; and in our own lives, to break those areas of sin, the areas of selfishness and pride and so on. In doing that, we are more free to be able to reach out in charity to others and thereby to help them.
As we look at what the Lord is really asking of us, it is to prepare ourselves for the ultimate freedom, which is the freedom from death; it is the freedom from the yoke of slavery that the devil has heaped upon us. We begin with that freedom by breaking free from sin, and the fullness of that freedom is going to be only in the Resurrection. So as we prepare for Easter, which is what this is about, it is to prepare our souls so that we will be free from sin in order to rise to new life; it is to become free from whatever is holding us bound – which is, again, all of our sinfulness, all of our selfishness, all of our pride, all these things that are keeping us all chained up, bound and earthbound, and we are not able to rise with Christ. We are not able to be united with Him while we have all of these things standing between us and weighing us down.
And so as we go through this holy season, the idea is to rid ourselves of all of these yokes and burdens and weights so that we will be able to be free, not only to unite ourselves with Him in love, but to rise with Him to new life. This, of course, is preparation for the final day, the day when we will be able to be free completely from this life and enter into eternal life, the day ultimately at the end of the world when Our Lord will return and the bodies of all of the just will rise and will be reunited with their souls to live with Christ forever. That cannot happen as long as we are weighed down by the shackles of sin. So in order to shorten our time in Purgatory, in order to prepare ourselves for the ultimate nuptial, the ultimate wedding, which is going to be in Heaven when our soul is perfectly united to Christ, we need to prepare ourselves. And we do that by getting rid of anything that stands between the two of us.
As the Lord tells us the kind of fasting that He wishes, we need to look within ourselves; and as we enter this time of self-denial, we need to look beyond the self to look at those areas where we can be of true service to others, that is, practice true charity and true justice toward others. And so we break from our own selfishness and we practice that charity; we get the focus off of the self and we put it on others where it belongs. In this way, we die to self and we rise with the Lord; we die to sin and we rise to love. That is what Our Lord is looking for. This is the time when there is a separation from the Bridegroom because of our own sinfulness. But this is the time when we prepare for the ultimate union with Christ, and we prepare by dying to self and living in love.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.