Friday, November 26, 2010

Pure and Undefiled Religion is this...

Why have we fasted, and Thou seest it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and Thou takest no knowledge of it?

Behold, in the day of your fast, you seek your own pleasure and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and fight...Fasting like yours ... will not make your voice to be heard on high.

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of let the oppressed go free…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...

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall protect you. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; then you shall cry, and He will say: Here I am.
(Isaiah 58:3-9)
Though the outward form of fasting is important, its inward form is the more important. More than just restricting oneself from certain foods, in the words of St. John Chrysostom, "The fast should be kept not by the mouth alone but also by the eye, the ear, the feet, the hands and all the members of the body': the eye must abstain from impure sights, the ear from malicious gossip, the hands from acts of injustice."

Bishop Kallistos Ware states, "The inner significance of fasting is best summed up in the triad: prayer, fasting, almsgiving." Fasting without prayer leads to pharisaical attitudes, rather than joyfulness it leads to pride. In both Testaments, fasting is always associated with prayer as an aid for a closer encounter with God. Remove prayer and all that remains is a human soul that is hungry and body that is thin. We already have fad diets for that. With prayer the hungry soul is filled, if we are to take the words of Jesus seriously, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God."

Prayer and fasting should lead to and be accompanied with almsgiving. Shepherd of Hermas states that the money saved through fasting, "you will give it to a widow, or an orphan, or to some person in want" which James would consider "pure and undefiled religion". Fasting done well ought to lead to this pure and undefiled religion. Almsgiving has a wider definition, of not just handing over cash to those in need, but giving time and giving of oneself to others. Fasting done well ought to move beyond only opening our wallets, but opening our lives and homes. How easy is it for us to hand over cash and put a checkmark in the good deed column. The difficult part is participating in the needs around us. And as I write this, it is painfully obvious how short I fall. Why is it so difficult to give up a Saturday of "taking it easy" at home? Why are movies whose titles and plotlines I can't remember more important that calling up a friend or family member and actually having a conversation? And I am sure these realizations are quite small in comparison to the potential of what I could be doing.

One aspect I enjoy about the fasting season, is just that-it is seasonal. Four times a year the church creates an environment which causes me to reevaluate myself. When I was not participating in a church calendar cycle, I would only reevaluate life when life came crashing down. When the catastrophe already occurred. Years could pass by without me reflecting on if or how my life had changed. And if the fasting season was all year, I think it would easily be taken for granted. So four times a year, the church asks, like God in the garden, "Where are you?" and it seems looking back that many times I, like Adam, was found hiding. So I go through the fasting period, checking myself, denying my wants, reducing what I think are needs, making room to be in a position of listening, and as in Isaiah, God replies, "Here I am".

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