In the reading from the Prophet Isaiah, we learn that the ritual act of fasting is unacceptable if it leads to quarrels rather than service. I know that I am testy when I am hungry, so fasting has the potential to bring out the worst in me. It would seem that the opportunity that I have to deepen my commitment to my Lord is squandered if I spend the majority of my fast actively avoiding other people, or, should certain people be unavoidable, biting off their proverbial heads. How many of my neighbors are starving in some literal or metaphorical sense? Shouldn’t my own temporary hunger open an opportunity to love and serve with a greater sensitivity and, perhaps, sense of urgency? I don’t often think about that, or really anything, when I fast. Rather, I’m concentrating on exactly what I’m going to eat when the, sometimes arbitrarily selected, time arrives to break my fast.
There is a real temptation to empty our rituals of meaning so that they are no more than a checklist: tasks done in order to make ourselves feel like we, perhaps, accomplished something this week — I “did” church on Sunday — or, perhaps, that God is somehow keeping score to decide who gets a passing grade. Our rituals become superficial and self-serving and start to look like they’re manufactured to prepare us for this world than for a world redeemed from sin through the sacrifice of the Cross. Fasting isn’t the end game, it’s the beginning: emptying our bodies in order for God to fill them back up again with goodness. Are we going to hide away like Adam, ashamed of our weakened, vulnerable state, or are we going to step out our door and say, “here I am, send me and fill me up with the good stuff?”
St. Paul reminds us today that superficial practice means nothing, but a new creation is everything. Forget the endless lists and the rat race of this world. Step out of line and start heading to the back because if we really, truly want to find Jesus, well, that’s where he’ll be.