1. Fasting and Penance are meaningless without God.
2. With God, all sacrifice is infused with joy.
So first we must look at the real meaning of fasting and penance and this is exactly what Isaiah addresses today. The Israelites were fasting, but they were not fasting for God. At this point in Israel’s history, fasts were not focused on piety and worship of God, but were almost like holidays where the people gathered together. But with the unstable social and economic situation, most likely right after the Babylonian Exile, these occasions for fasting, rather than bringing the people closer to God in worship, led them to fight with one another. In effect, their fasting was ultimately meaningless. Isaiah reminds the people that God is the reason for fasting and tells them how to keep God at the heart of fasting, by doing corporal works of mercy, focusing their actions on others, not themselves. So for us as well, serving Christ in others and not serving ourselves is exactly the kind of attitude we must have when we fast and do penance, because these acts are not simply isolated acts only affecting ourselves, but rather we can use our acts of fasting and penance to pray and help those around us. And these acts done in union with God bring us closer to God because they are a concrete way of saying to God, “God, I love you more than I love myself.” And this love, in turn, brings joy.
Jesus clearly articulates this kind of joy when he addresses the Pharisees today. The disciples cannot mourn because they are in the very presence of the bridegroom, Jesus himself! Jesus uses wedding imagery, calling himself the bridegroom to invoke the sense of the joy and elation that is real when one is in union with Christ. This is the same joy we are invited to enter into when we draw close to Christ, and in a special way we are invited to deepen this union with Christ during lent. We are called by Jesus to be in relationship with him, which brings joy to everything we do, including our acts of fasting and penance for Him.
And so, my brothers, I want to encourage you to remember two things as we journey through lent towards Holy Week:
1. Fasting and Penance are meaningless without God. Don’t focus on your sacrifice as something you are forced to do, like I did as a kid, but as something you do for God, out of love.
2. Remember to let joy infuse your acts of penance and sacrifice because of Jesus, the bridegroom, whom you are in relationship with. Make this lent a true sacrifice of joy.