February 27, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Friday After Ash Wednesday
Reading (Isaiah 58:1-9a) Gospel (St. Matthew 9:14-15)
In the readings today as we hear about fasting, the word fasting comes from a word that means “to close one’s mouth”. So it is a matter of not only refraining from opening the mouth to food, but also, as is made very clear in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, it is to be able to keep our mouth closed with what we say so that we are not driving the laborers and we are not complaining and fighting and so on. But it has also to do, then, with finding an exterior expression to what is happening interiorly with the hunger.
And so the Lord says through the prophet Isaiah that what He wants for fasting is releasing those 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. He says that when we do these things then our prayers are going to be heard, the wounds will be quickly healed, and our voices will be heard by God.
Now when we look at some of these things, there are certainly ways that we can apply them to ourselves. Is there somebody, for instance, that we are not forgiving? Have we unjustly “bound” someone in this kind of way? Is there someone against whom we are holding a grudge? Is there someone who is the butt of our anger? Someone about whom we like to gossip? Someone who we tear to pieces? “What kind of bondage do we have in our hearts?” is really what the question is because maybe we are not unjustly binding somebody in some form of external imprisonment, but we certainly have lots of people bound up in our hearts and in our minds. We are, in essence, violating these individuals in the way that we ourselves approach them. So the Lord is saying, “If you want to be forgiven, if you want to have your wounds healed, you have to be willing to go the extra step and be willing to forgive others.”
This is a kind of fasting, if you really think about it, because what we are doing is feeding ourselves over and over again on the anger and on the injustice and on all the uncharitable things that we do to people. We keep fueling the fire of hatred or anger or whatever it is that is on the inside. And the Lord is telling us through the prophet Isaiah that we need to get rid of these things. Our wounds cannot heal if we are inflicting wounds on someone else because it is out of our own woundedness that we are doing it. So as long as we refuse to look at the wound within ourselves, we cannot heal. If we see that what we are doing to someone else is something that is unjust, then the Lord is calling us to change our ways, to be able to say that it is true that we need to fast from certain things and to deprive ourselves, to mortify ourselves, but the most important thing is going to be in the way that we treat others, to make sure that we are treating them in a way that is just and in a way that is charitable.
When Our Lord tells us, “The day will come when they will fast,” this is the day; now is the time. As we prepare for what is to happen with Our Lord, as He is taken away from us, in essence, as we prepare for the events of the Triduum, this is the time for fasting now and it is a time for making those changes in our lives. Again, it is not just a matter of looking at “Should I give up some sort of food or should I give up the TV?” or whatever it might be – “yes” is the answer to those things – but what are we going to do with regard to the charity? That is what the Lord is looking for. It is not merely depriving ourselves of something, but it is looking and saying, “What am I depriving someone else of?” If someone is deprived of food, if someone is deprived of clothing, if someone is deprived of freedom, if someone is deprived of justice by our actions, by our unwillingness to forgive, by our anger, by whatever it is, this is what the Lord is getting at and saying, “As you deprive yourself of something, look at where you yourself are depriving someone else.” That is the kind of fast the Lord is looking for, to be able to turn whatever sort of deprivation we are inflicting upon someone else the opposite direction, and to make sure that what we are doing in fasting is finding its fruit in justice and in charity so that our wounds will be healed and our voice in prayer will be heard and our day of fasting, then, as we deprive ourselves of whatever it may be, may actually end up as a day of great fruit, as a day of fulfillment of sorts. It is not just a matter of saying, “I will take something away,” but it is to fulfill what it is that we are doing so that, as we deprive ourselves of something which is good, we then turn around and give to someone else what is also good. In fact, as we deprive ourselves of something that is small, what the Lord is asking us to do is to be generous toward others, to forgive, and to treat them in a way which is great so that our deprivation, our fasting finds a fulfillment in charity.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.