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A Fast of Mercy

First Reading: Isaiah 58:1-9A

Thus says the Lord GOD:
Cry out full-throated and unsparingly,
lift up your voice like a trumpet blast;
Tell my people their wickedness,
and the house of Jacob their sins.
They seek me day after day,
and desire to know my ways,
Like a nation that has done what is just
and not abandoned the law of their God;
They ask me to declare what is due them,
pleased to gain access to God.
“Why do we fast, and you do not see it?
afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it?”

Lo, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits,
and drive all your laborers.
Yes, your fast ends in quarreling and fighting,
striking with wicked claw.
Would that today you might fast
so as to make your voice heard on high!
Is this the manner of fasting I wish,
of keeping a day of penance:
That a man bow his head like a reed
and lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?
This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
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.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
Your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer,
you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6AB, 18-19

R. (19b) A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.
R. A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
For I acknowledge my offense,
and my sin is before me always:
“Against you only have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight.”
R. A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
For you are not pleased with sacrifices;
should I offer a burnt offering, you would not accept it.
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
R. A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.

Gospel: Matthew 9:14-15

The disciples of John approached Jesus and said,
“Why do we and the Pharisees fast much,
but your disciples do not fast?”
Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests mourn
as long as the bridegroom is with them?
The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them,
and then they will fast.”

NAB

feb 12

I sat across from her, for what felt like the hundredth hour, praying and talking and praying again. I had never personally known anyone who had suffered as much as she had, nor one with as much need. She had latched on to me because of similarities in our pasts but I had experienced mere rain drops, while Sara had survived hurricanes. The water was way, way over my head but I did the only thing I knew to do: I sat across from her.

Hour after hour, day after day, we talked and prayed. Sometimes it felt gratifying; more often it felt boring at best, maddeningly frustrating at worst.

I was a college student at the time and zealously “on fire for Jesus.” I fasted on a weekly schedule. I spent hours at a time in prayer and study. I did a lot of things that sure looked pious and spiritually significant, things that made me feel pretty good about myself.

But now that I’m older, with another decade of living under my belt, I look back on that time with a different perspective. I can see that, sure, the time spent in prayer and fasting were certainly good and not at all in vain. But looking through the lens of Sacred Scripture, were those the things dearest to Jesus’ heart? Were those the sacrifices most beautiful to Him?

Or was Jesus more pleased with the sacrifice of spending hours upon hours listening to and comforting one of His wounded lambs, my friend in need? I think I know the answer, and I think you do too.

There are so many wonderful spiritual disciplines that our religious tradition gives us, and none are without benefit. But there are also none that can replace the simple act of being present with the hurting, with the oppressed, with those in need. Isaiah 58 isn’t just a call for works of mercy during the season of Lent, or during the Year of Mercy; it is a call for a life of mercy. But the season of Lent in the Year of Mercy is a pretty good place to start.

How can you show mercy to someone in need today, even if it is inconvenient or uncomfortable?

photo credit

Shannon Evans is a Protestant missionary turned Catholic convert who lived to tell the tale. An adoptive and biological mom of two boys, she enjoys hosing mud off children, scrubbing sticky furniture, and rushing to the ER to have nails extracted from small intestines. You can find out more about her here.

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